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COVID-19 will soon surpass the Spanish flu as America’s deadliest pandemic

September 16, 2021, 3:32 PM UTC

As of Wednesday, the deaths of 666,816 people in the United States—including 13,600 just over the past week—have been attributed to COVID-19.

That mounting death count will soon render the COVID-19 pandemic as America’s deadliest.

The number of deaths from the coronavirus pandemic have already surpassed those from the 1968 flu ( an estimated 100,000). At their current pace, COVID-related deaths will also surpass the 675,000 estimated U.S. deaths caused by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic—the deadliest in U.S. history—before the end of September.

While deaths attributed to COVID-19 are likely to surpass those from the Spanish flu, it doesn’t mean the coronavirus pandemic is the deadlier of the two: On a per capita basis, the Spanish flu pandemic—caused by the H1N1 Influenza A virus—killed a much higher percentage of the nation than COVID-19. In 1920, the U.S. population stood at 106 million, compared with 331.5 million in 2020.

Because there was no vaccine or antibiotic treatment for the Spanish flu, there was a higher mortality rate than for COVID-19, affecting, according to the CDC, all age groups over age 5. As the CDC writes: “High mortality in healthy people, including those in the 20–40 year age group, was a unique feature of [the 1918] pandemic.”

While COVID-19 will soon become the deadliest pandemic in U.S. history, it won’t come close globally. In fact, it won’t even surpass the 1918 influenza pandemic: Globally, COVID-19 has claimed nearly 4.7 million lives, according to data collected by John Hopkins University, compared with the estimated 50 million killed globally between 1918 and 1919 by the Spanish flu.

We should note that death counts for both the 1918 Spanish flu and the 1968 flu pandemic are rough estimates. The lack of data reporting, in particular amid the Spanish flu, makes pinning down the number of fatalities very challenging.

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