US COVID-19 death toll surpasses that of 1918 flu pandemic

The U.S. reported more than 675,000 COVID-19 deaths as of Sept. 20, surpassing the number of deaths seen during the 1918 flu pandemic, reports The Washington Post

The nation's death toll stood at 675,722 as of Sept. 20 at 4:20 p.m. CT, according to data from Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. The comparison offers a stark reminder of the pandemic's continued tragedy, but does require additional context, the Post said.

Four considerations:

1. The U.S. population is about three times larger than it was in 1918. About 1 in 500 Americans have died from COVID-19, compared to 1 in 150 who died from the flu in 1918.

2. The death toll for the 1918 pandemic is an estimate due to incomplete death certificate data, meaning the nation's COVID-19 death toll may have already surpassed the actual count, according to the Post.

3. In terms of deadliness, COVID-19 has a 1.6 percent case-fatality rate, while the 1918 flu killed about 2.5 percent to 3 percent of people infected, according to the Post. It's unclear whether these findings reflect each virus's relative deadliness, advances in healthcare and public health response over the last century, or both, the publication said. 

4. The 1918 flu pandemic lasted about one year, with the deadliest month (October 1918) coming shortly after it started. In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic's worst wave to date came last winter, almost a full year after the pandemic started. 

"The fact that deaths surged at the end of 2020, nine months after the pandemic reached the United States, with the highest daily death tolls in early January 2021, is perhaps the most discouraging comparison to the historical record," E. Thomas Ewing, PhD, a historian and professor at Blacksburg-based Virginia Tech told the Post. "We ignored the lessons of 1918, and then we disregarded warnings issued in the first months of this pandemic. We will never know how many lives could have been saved if we had taken this threat more seriously."


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