COVID-19 Is the Worst Pandemic in US History

COVID-19 surpassed the 1918 Spanish flu death toll. Let's put this alarming milestone in perspective.

For more than a century, the deadly 1918 flu had been the benchmark for pandemics in the US. Unfortunately, as of September 2022, the COVID-19 pandemic is officially the worst pandemic in American history.

A Review of the 1918 Spanish Flu

Not familiar with the 1918 flu pandemic? This particular strain of the flu circled the globe and arrived in America in the spring of 1918 and spread rapidly. At the time, there were no flu vaccines to prevent the spread and no antibiotics to treat any secondary infections (like pneumonia) according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It's estimated that one-third of the world's population had contracted the flu. In the US, a quarter of the nation's population caught the virus, and life expectancy for Americans dropped by 12 years, per the National Archives.

People didn't fully understand why the flu was so deadly and were urged to isolate, quarantine, practice good personal hygiene, and limit social interaction—similar to precautions that are advised for COVID-19.

Getty Images / Jo Imperio

A Review of COVID-19

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a type of virus known as coronavirus. This particular strand of coronavirus is called SARS-CoV-2 and began infecting people at the end of 2019.

As of September 2022, COVID-19 has infected over 600 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Of those 600 million, 94 million of those cases are from the US, according to the CDC.

Unlike the Spanish flu, there are antibiotics to help with secondary infections from COVID-19. And as of August 2021, there are vaccines to protect against COVID-19, according to the US Department of Health & Human Services. But even though there are antibiotics and vaccines, the death toll for COVID-19 is higher than that of the Spanish flu.

The Number of Deaths in the US

The number of deaths from COVID-19 surpassed that of the 1918 flu pandemic. According to data from the CDC, about 675,000 people died from the flu pandemic in the US between the early spring of 1918 and 1919. In comparison, over 1 million people in the US have died of COVID-19 nationwide as of September 2022.

Death Spikes

For both viruses, there were spikes in the amount of deaths. In October 1918 alone, an estimated 195,000 Americans died of the virus. According to the CDC, by February 1919, cases began to drop, but the flu began coming back seasonally.

The US has gone through several spikes in deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the CDC, the following spikes are the seven-day moving averages of the deaths that were caused by the COVID-19 virus:

  • April 2020: 2,300 deaths
  • August 2020: 1,210 deaths
  • January 2021: 3,600 deaths
  • September 2021: 1,500 deaths
  • February 2022: 2,700 deaths

Despite these spikes in the amount of deaths, COVID-19 still surpasses the death toll of the spanish flu, and the number increases daily.

How COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu Compare

COVID-19 deaths surpassing 1918 flu pandemic deaths "provides a historical benchmark because, until the present, we have always had the 1918-1919 flu as the biggest epidemic of any kind that had ever affected the US," said William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. "That's now been surpassed, and it puts into perspective how serious COVID-19 really is. Trying to persuade people who are still denying its importance seems progressively sadder and sadder each day."

A Quick Review

In comparison, COVID-19 has resulted in more deaths than the 1918 Spanish flu had. In the US, more than 1 million people have died from the virus (as of September 2022) while the Spanish flu claimed 675,000 lives.

This puts into perspective just how serious COVID-19 is. To protect yourself and others against COVID-19, stay updated on your vaccinations, according to the CDC. COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and protect you and others from severe illness related to COVID-19.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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