COVID-19 Is Officially the Worst Pandemic in US History, Surpassing the Death Toll From the 1918 Spanish Flu

© Provided by Health Getty Images / Jo Imperio

For more than a century, the deadly 1918 flu has been the benchmark for pandemics in the US. And now, unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic is officially the worst pandemic in American history.

Deaths from COVID-19 have just surpassed those of the 1918 flu pandemic. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 675,000 people died from the flu pandemic in the US between the early spring of 1918 and 1919. Data from the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reveals that 676,100 people have died of COVID-19 nationwide—and this pandemic is still ongoing.

At the time of the 1918 flu pandemic, the US population was about 105 million. It’s currently at 332.7 million, according to the Census Bureau.

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Not familiar with the 1918 flu pandemic? This particular H1N1 strain of the flu, which circled the globe, arrived in America in the spring of 1918 and spread rapidly. There were no flu vaccines at the time, and people didn’t fully understand why the flu was so deadly, the CDC says. No antibiotics existed to help treat secondary infections from the flu, like pneumonia. People were urged to isolate, quarantine, practice good personal hygiene, and limit social interaction, according to the National Archives.

© Getty Images / Jo Imperio Let’s put this alarming milestone in perspective.

In October 1918 alone, an estimated 195,000 Americans died of the virus. A third wave of cases hit in the winter and spring of 1919, killing many more people. By February 1919, cases began to drop, but the flu began coming back seasonally. Overall, a quarter of the population caught the virus, and life expectancy for Americans dropped by 12 years, per the National Archives.

The US has gone through several spikes in deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, with April 2020 seeing a seven-day moving average of 2,308 deaths from the virus. In August 2020, there was a seven-day moving average of 1,210 deaths, and January 2021 saw a seven-day moving average of 3,645 deaths, per CDC data. Another spike in September saw a seven-day moving average of 1,521 deaths. The daily death toll in the country from the virus has not dipped below 144 deaths since the pandemic began.

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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,” William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health. “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.”

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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