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COVID's Death Toll Catches 1918 Flu's

One model shows another 100,000 people will be killed by January
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 20, 2021 7:15 PM CDT
COVID Has Taken as Many Lives as 1918 Flu
An employee moves the body of a patient who died of COVID-19 onto a gurney to take to a funeral home van last month in Shreveport, La.   (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

(Newser) – COVID-19 has now killed about as many Americans as the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic did—approximately 675,000. The US population a century ago was one-third of what it is today, meaning the flu cut a much bigger, more lethal swath through the country. But the COVID-19 crisis is by any measure a colossal tragedy in its own right, especially given the incredible advances in scientific knowledge since then and the failure to take maximum advantage of the vaccines available this time. "Big pockets of American society—and, worse, their leaders—have thrown this away," said Dr. Howard Markel, a medical historian at the University of Michigan, the AP reports.

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Like the Spanish flu, the coronavirus may never entirely disappear from our midst. Instead, scientists hope it becomes a mild seasonal bug as human immunity strengthens through vaccination and repeated infection. That could take time. "We hope it will be like getting a cold, but there's no guarantee," said Emory University biologist Rustom Antia, who suggests an optimistic scenario in which this could happen over a few years. For now, the pandemic still has the US and other parts of the world firmly in its jaws.

While the delta-fueled surge in infections may have peaked, US deaths are still averaging more than 1,900 a day on average, the highest level since early March, and the country's overall toll topped 675,000 on Monday, according to the count kept by Johns Hopkins University. Experts believe the real number to be higher. Winter could bring a new surge, with the University of Washington's influential model projecting an additional 100,000 or so Americans will die of COVID-19 by Jan. 1, which would bring the overall US toll to 776,000.

The 1918-19 influenza pandemic killed 50 million people globally at a time when the world had one-quarter the population it does now. Global deaths from COVID-19 now stand at more than 4.6 million. The Spanish flu's US death toll is an estimate, given the incomplete records of the era and the poor scientific understanding of what caused the illness. The 675,000 figure comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Before COVID-19, the 1918-19 flu was universally considered the worst pandemic disease in human history. No vaccine existed to slow it, and there were no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections. (One twin died in each of the pandemics.)

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