In 1918 the world suffered the first truly global pandemic, widely (although inaccurately) known as the Spanish Flu. Over the following year, it killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people, including an estimated 675,000 Americans. Thankfully COVID-19 has yet to reach such horrifying figures worldwide. In the United States, however, it has now surpassed the figure from a century before. Although deaths from HIV are probably higher still, it is almost certain COVID-19 is the worst outbreak of infectious disease by raw numbers in the nation's history.
Measuring deaths from disease is seldom precise. People can die from a combination of causes, so pinning the blame on one in particular sometimes involves some guesswork. There is evidence many people died, particularly early in the pandemic, without getting tested for COVID-19, and therefore have not been included in the statistics.
If this is the case in modern times, it is easy to imagine how much less certain numbers are from the early 20th century. Global estimates range so widely because little tracking was done of the numbers dying in Asia and Africa, but even in the United States, the CDC's estimate of 675,000 comes with considerable error bars.
Nevertheless, on Sunday those who have studied the history of disease outbreaks noticed official COVID-19 counts were creeping close to a familiar number. According to the latest data, US COVID deaths currently stand at 676, 347.
With 2,000 deaths a day, the death toll is going to be much higher by the end of the year. Associated Press reports the University of Washington predicts another 100,000 deaths before January 1, 2022.
When influenza struck in 1918 vaccines against it were a decade away, and scientific knowledge of how to tackle such a crisis was in its infancy. When COVID-19 first reached North America some of the same things could be said, but that has long changed. Although breakthrough infections are making many vaccinated people sick, the 11,000 American deaths now occurring every week are now almost entirely among the unvaccinated.
There are many ways to look at statistics like these. The population of the United States has grown around 220 percent since 1918, so the proportion who have died this time is currently less than a third as high. Moreover, the Spanish Flu was notorious for the way it killed people in the prime of life, taking a much lighter toll on influenza's usual victims: the elderly and infants. Even with Delta having a younger mortality profile than the original COVID-19 strain, fewer years of life are probably being lost now than a century ago.
Nevertheless, it seems that all those people who, when the outbreak began, said “It's just lke the 'flu” were closer to the truth than they realized.