COVID Has Killed More Americans Than the Spanish Flu Did in 1918

1918 spanish flu pandemic
1918 spanish flu pandemic

Policemen in Seattle wearing masks during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Photo: U.S. National Archives

TUESDAY, Sept. 21, 2021 (HealthDay News) -- As the highly contagious Delta variant has swept across the United States, the country has reached a tragic milestone.

COVID-19 has now killed more Americans than the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic did, when roughly 675,000 people died.

It didn't have to be that way.

"Big pockets of American society — and worse, their leaders — have thrown this away" by not getting vaccinated, Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian from the University of Michigan, told the Associated Press.

This happened despite vast gains in scientific knowledge during the past century, including the development of three powerful vaccines approved in the United States to fight the new coronavirus.

"We know that all pandemics come to an end," Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health who wrote a book on influenza, told the AP. Still, "they can do terrible things while they're raging."

There was one important caveat to the latest milestone: The U.S. population was one-third of the size it is today, so the 675,000 who died were a much bigger portion of the population, the AP reported.

By Tuesday, the number of COVID-19 deaths in the United States had passed 676,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

About 1,900 Americans are now dying in the United States every day, on average — the highest level since last March. A simulation model designed by researchers at the University of Washington predicts an additional 100,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 by Jan. 1, 2022, which would bring the total death toll to 776,000, the AP reported.

Vaccines could have made a difference.

Sixty-four percent of eligible Americans are vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But that varies widely, depending on the state: Between 46% and 49% have been vaccinated in Idaho, Wyoming, West Virginia and Mississippi, while 77% have gotten their shots in Vermont and Massachusetts.

"We still have an opportunity to turn it around," Brown said. "We often lose sight of how lucky we are to take these things for granted."

Like the Spanish flu, COVID-19 could become a seasonal bug over time, and it could weaken as it mutates and more humans' immune systems learn to attack it.

"We will all get infected," Emory University biologist Rustom Antia told the AP. "What's important is whether the infections are severe."

It's not yet clear whether the coronavirus pandemic will surpass the 1918 pandemic as the most tragic in human history.

"You'd like to say no. We have a lot more infection control, a lot more ability to support people who are sick. We have modern medicine," Ann Marie Kimball, a retired University of Washington professor of epidemiology, told the AP. "But we have a lot more people and a lot more mobility... The fear is eventually a new strain gets around a particular vaccine target."

Worldwide, COVID-19 has killed 4.6 million people. About 43% of the global population has received at least one dose, according to Our World in Data.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on COVID vaccines.

SOURCE: Associated Press

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