The 1918 flu outbreak is often remembered as the deadliest pandemic in recent history.
Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, the contagion infected a third of the world’s population in four successive waves and killed at least fifty million people—roughly 675,000 of them in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Now eight months into this current pandemic, it appears that the novel coronavirus will surely head into the history books as well. Whether it will topple the 1918 pandemic in terms of lives taken remains to be seen.
From current trends, however, the infection and mortality rates are only going in one direction—and they are rising quickly.
In all, there already have been about 23.5 million global cases and about 810,000 deaths due to the coronavirus, according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University. In the United States, there are 5.7 million cases and 177,000 related deaths.
According to a recent study published in the medical journal JAMA Network Open, researchers were able to focus specifically on the number of excess deaths during the first two months of the coronavirus outbreak in New York City and the peak of the 1918 pandemic in the same city.
“This cohort study found that the absolute increase in deaths over baseline observed during the peak of 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic was higher than, but comparable, to that observed during the first two months of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City,” said the study, which analyzed public data from the CDC, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and the U.S. Census Bureau.
The overall mortality rate with today’s coronavirus pandemic was found to be lower, the researchers noted, but that is in part due to “improvements in hygiene and modern achievements in medicine, public health and safety.” In 1918, there were no viable vaccines or antibiotics that could effectively treat secondary infections that inevitably emerged in flu-stricken patients.
Given these facts, the increase in deaths during the early coronavirus outbreak was considered “substantially greater” than during the peak of the 1918 flu pandemic, the researchers wrote.
“For anyone who doesn’t understand the magnitude of what we’re living through, this pandemic is comparable in its effect on mortality to what everyone agrees is the previous worst pandemic,” Jeremy S. Faust, an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston who led the team of researchers, told The Washington Post.
According to new forecast from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine, nearly 300,000 Americans could be dead from the coronavirus by December 1.
The data, however, predicts that consistent mask-wearing by 95% of the U.S. population has the potential to save 70,000 lives.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.