Story at a glance
- Public health experts are warning of a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic headed into the winter.
- The 1918 influenza pandemic also came in waves, the most deadly of which was the second wave.
- Large gatherings and travel caused a mutated strain of influenza to spread quickly and took millions of lives.
As experts warn of a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic this winter, some historians are getting the feeling that we’ve been here before.
An estimated 50 million people died during the 1918 influenza pandemic, about 675,000 of which were in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while the coronavirus death toll — now at about 1 million globally and more than 227,000 in the United States — isn’t anywhere close, it’s also not over yet. The second and third waves of the influenza pandemic were significantly more deadly than the first wave in early 1918 and it wasn’t until the summer after that the outbreaks subsided.
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"My guess is it wasn't great at infecting people in the spring and had to sort of adapt," John M. Barry, author of "The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History," told CNN. "Then a mutation took over that was very good at infecting people and also more virulent."
Scientists had already tracked more than 30 mutations of SARS-CoV-2 in April and preliminary research in September suggested a dominant strain of coronavirus may be more contagious than others. As flu season begins, doctors are also concerned about the added strain on immune systems. Last flu season, the CDC estimated an estimated 35.5 million people got sick with influenza, 490,600 of whom were hospitalized and 34,200 died.
But more than six months into the current pandemic, many are leery of the warnings and recommendations. So were many Americans in 1918, when the flu pandemic arrived just as the United States was entering World War I. When the war ended, Americans hoped that was the end of all their troubles — but as people gathered to celebrate and soldiers began returning home, a third wave struck.
Whether or not the coronavirus pandemic follows the arc of the 1918 pandemic, history has proven one thing: Precautions such as face masks work and should be heeded.
“Today we can look back and see that they flattened the curve and the communities that did enforce much stricter regulations and for a longer period of time and began earlier had lower death rates,” Bristow told History.com. “But they didn’t have that data tabulated yet, so I think in the aftermath it wasn’t as clear that what they had done had been effective.”
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