Healthcare

US COVID-19 death toll surpasses that of 1918 pandemic

The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 has surpassed that of the 1918 flu pandemic, according to a tracker from Johns Hopkins University, highlighting the extraordinary damage incurred by the current virus.

The U.S. has passed 675,000 deaths, the estimated toll from the 1918 pandemic, which for a century had been the worst pandemic to hit the country.

"The number of reported deaths from Covid in the US will surpass the toll of the 1918 flu pandemic this month," Tom Frieden, the former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tweeted earlier this month. "We cannot become hardened to the continuing, and largely preventable, tragedy."

Deaths from COVID-19 are also far from over. The U.S. is averaging about 2,000 more deaths from the virus every day, according to a New York Times tracker.

Those deaths are overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated, though, highlighting that the continuing toll of COVID-19 is now largely preventable now that vaccines are widely available in the U.S. In 1918, there was no vaccine to help stop the flu pandemic.

Still, the U.S. population was far smaller a century ago, meaning that the death rate from the 1918 pandemic is still higher than for COVID-19.

E. Thomas Ewing, a Virginia Tech history professor, wrote in Health Affairs earlier this year that the death rate from the 1918 pandemic was about six in every 1,000 people, given the U.S. population at the time of around 100 million.

The death rate from COVID-19 in the U.S. is about two in every 1,000 people.

A disproportionate share of COVID-19 deaths are also in the United States. Worldwide, the 1918 flu killed far more people than COVID-19 has so far, at about 50 million compared to about 5 million.

Ewing also wrote that the prolonged toll of COVID-19 has not reflected well on the response. Many of the deaths in 1918 came in a "sudden escalation" in October of that year, "within weeks of the first cases and deaths," he wrote. 

"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," Ewing writes. "We ignored the lessons of 1918, and then we disregarded warnings issued in the first months of this pandemic."

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