Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March, there have been comparisons between the novel Coronavirus and the flu. While initial data suggested that COVID-19 was an order of magnitude more dangerous than a typical flu season, more concrete data is now in that shows the current health crisis is similar in severity to one of the worst pandemics in American history, the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918-1920.
Researchers in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the increase in deaths in New York City in the first two months of this year’s COVID-19 outbreak with the excess deaths in New York during the peak months of the Spanish flu pandemic, which was caused by the H1N1 flu strain. As a baseline, the researchers compared the pandemic periods with corresponding periods from 1914 through 1917 and 2017 through 2019. The study found that the excess mortality, or increase in deaths, in the two pandemics was almost the same.
It is difficult to compare two pandemics that occurred 100 years apart on an apples-to-apples basis, but the results of the study underscored the severity of the current pandemic. Excess mortality from 1918 was slightly higher than in 2020, but normal mortality from modern New York was less than half that of the years preceding the Spanish flu due to advances in hygiene, medicine, public health, and safety. As a result, the researchers found that “the relative increase during early COVID-19 period was substantially greater than during the peak of the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic.”
“These findings suggest that the mortality associated with COVID-19 during the early phase of the New York City outbreak was comparable to the peak mortality observed during the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic,” the study’s authors state.
In other words, the 2020 pandemic started from a lower point but still nearly equaled the high mortality rates of 100 years ago. Despite a century of scientific and medical advances, victims were as defenseless against COVID-19 as patients were against H1N1 in 1918.
“We believe that our findings may help officials and the public contextualize the unusual magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to more prudent policies,” the authors state, noting that spring shutdowns “did not adequately lower caseloads in many areas, meaning that subsequent spikes in new cases during the summer stretched US hospital resources in many areas.”
The Spanish flu pandemic is credited with killing 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in the US over two years. Since the Coronavirus outbreak began in China last December, COVID-19 has killed an estimated 765,000 people around the world, including 168,000 Americans. The CDC predicts that the US death toll will reach 200,000 by Labor Day. From this point, it impossible to say how long the Coronavirus pandemic will last or how large the ultimate loss of life will be.
Other viral outbreaks either burned out quickly, were not virulent enough to kill large numbers of people in a short time or were not infectious enough to spread readily. The SARS, AIDS, and Ebola viruses were deadly but had more difficulty spreading. Other flu pandemics were very infectious (although not as infectious as COVID-19) but had lower mortality rates.
A few weeks ago, a commenter on The Resurgent’s Facebook page asked the question, “And we have learned nothing since 1918? Medicine, hygiene, none of that has improved?”
The answer is that there have been advances since 1918 but viruses are still notoriously hard to fight. Antibiotic drugs do not kill viruses, but we do have antiviral drugs that can help the body fight viral infections. Unfortunately, most treatments only help deal with the symptoms of viral infections while waiting for the body’s immune system to fight off the infection. We also have ventilators to help give victims of respiratory viruses more time to recover.
The best way to defeat a virus is to avoid catching and transmitting it in the first place. This means that our best weapons in the fight against viruses are avoidance and vaccines. Unfortunately, there is currently no approved COVID-19 vaccine (unless you trust an untested Russian drug). Until a vaccine is ready, the best strategy is to practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently, and wear a mask.
Just as importantly, don’t believe the conspiracy theories and fake news that seek to downplay the danger of COVID-19. In this case, conspiracy theories can get you and your loved ones killed.
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