COVID-19 has now killed as many people in the U.S. as the 1918 Spanish flu

A sign in Medfield, Massachusetts, commemorating the victims of the 1918 flu pandemic.
A sign in Medfield, MA commemorating the victims of the 1918 flu pandemic. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

COVID-19 has now killed as many people in the U.S. as the 1918 flu pandemic, which is often cited as the most severe pandemic in recent history, according to the Associated Press.

As of Tuesday (Sept. 21), more than 676,200 people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins dashboard. The 1918-1919 flu pandemic is thought to have killed roughly 675,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

But it's not exactly clear how many people died a century ago, due to incomplete records and poor understanding of the illness cause, according to the AP.

Related: 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history

The worldwide mortality from COVID-19 — estimated at around 4.7 million deaths to date — is nowhere near global deaths brought by the 1918 flu, a number estimated to be more than 50 million.

Of course, an apples-to-apples comparison doesn't reveal the true picture of either pandemic, as there are many factors that have changed since a century ago. 

On one hand, the population of the U.S. was about a third of what it is today, which means that the 1918 flu wiped out a bigger part of the population than the COVID-19 pandemic has so far, according to the AP. (And the population of the world was about a fourth of what it is today.)

On the other hand, there have been significant scientific advances since a century ago, including three currently available vaccines against COVID-19 in the U.S. 

Not only were vaccines not available in 1918, but also they didn't have antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections at the time, according to the AP. The 1918 flu killed young, healthy adults in much bigger numbers than COVID-19, which has disproportionately targeted the older and more vulnerable population.

There are currently about 1,900 COVID-related deaths a day, on average in the U.S., and University of Washington projections suggest an additional 100,000 deaths related to the disease in the U.S. by Jan. 1, 2022, according to the AP.

About 64% of the eligible population in the U.S. (those 12 years of age or older) are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19. 

Only about 43% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with only 2% of people in low-income countries who received one dose, according to our World in Data. (The vaccines are still not readily available in many countries around the world.)

COVID-19 would have been much less deadly in the U.S., where vaccines are readily available, if more people had quickly gotten vaccinated. "We still have an opportunity to turn it around," Dr. Jeremy Brown, director of emergency care research at the National Institutes of Health, told the AP. "We often lose sight of how lucky we are to take these things for granted."

How the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered in comparison to the 1918 flu remains unclear. You'd like to say it won't be remembered the worst in human history, .

"We have a lot more infection control, a lot more ability to support people who are sick. We have modern medicine," Ann Marie Kimball, a retired University of Washington professor of epidemiology, told the AP. "But we have a lot more people and a lot more mobility. ... The fear is eventually a new strain gets around a particular vaccine target."

Read the original Associated Press story here

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.