U.S. COVID-19 death toll surpasses total of 1918 Spanish flu pandemic

Patients sick with the Spanish flu are hospitalized at a makeshift ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, in 1918. File Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army
1 of 2 | Patients sick with the Spanish flu are hospitalized at a makeshift ward at Camp Funston, Kansas, in 1918. File Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

Sept. 20 (UPI) -- The death toll from COVID-19 surpassed that of the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak Monday, making it the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history, according to a count compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The total number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 stood at nearly 676,000 as of late Monday afternoon, according to a running tally kept by the university's Center for Systems Science and Engineering.


That surpasses the 675,000 Americans estimated by U.S. health officials to have died in the Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918-19. The number of deaths worldwide was estimated to be at least 50 million.

The John Hopkins data showed COVID-19 is still claiming more than 1,900 lives per day as the United States endures another ongoing wave of infection due to the highly contagious Delta variant.

"In terms of raw numbers of deaths, that's a high number," University of Michigan public health expert Howard Markel told the heath news website STAT. "And it's higher still than it should have been, frankly."

Many of the lessons from the Spanish flu epidemic may have been lost due to time and the fact that it was such a rare event, he said.


"We finally now have a modern pandemic," Markel added. "In modern times with modern vaccines and so on. So to me, this is the one I'm going to be teaching my medical students and public health students."

The H1N1 virus that caused the 1918 pandemic had genes of avian origin, although there is no universal consensus regarding where it originated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It caused an especially high death rate among healthy people between 15 and 34 years of age and lowered the average life expectancy in the United States by more than 12 years.

No vaccines were available to protect against infection and no antibiotics were on hand to treat secondary bacterial infections, meaning that control efforts worldwide were limited to isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limits on public gatherings.

"Obviously, we have much better advantages now, 100 years later," Dr. Paul Offit, who advises the FDA on COVID-19 vaccines, told CNBC.

But, he added, he is "frustrated" with the death toll of the current pandemic, which has been worsened by people refusing to take advantage of effective and freely available vaccines.

"I can tell you that we see a lot of children hospitalized as well, who have high-risk conditions and the problem is not that they didn't get their third dose. The problem is that they are unvaccinated," he said.


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