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100,000+ US deaths from COVID-19? How does that compare to SARS, swine flu and other pandemics?

Unlike earlier pandemics and seasonal fluoutbreaks, the 1918 pandemic flu saw high mortality rates among healthy adults. In fact, the illness and mortality rates
Unlike earlier pandemics and seasonal fluoutbreaks, the 1918 pandemic flu saw high mortality rates among healthy adults. In fact, the illness and mortality rates (U.S. Army)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The novel coronavirus disease we’re battling is on track to become the deadliest pandemic this nation has seen in 100 years.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert and member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said Sunday that based on models, the United States could eventually see 100,000 or more deaths from the novel coronavirus.

“I don’t want to be held to that,” Fauci said, but he did add that the US is going to face “millions of cases.”

How does that compare to other pandemics?

Swine flu

The nation’s most recent fight was in 2009 when the H1N1 virus, also called swine flu, appeared in the U.S. and spread quickly across the world. This H1N1 virus contained a unique combination of influenza genes not previously identified in animals or people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the CDC from April 2009 to April 2010 there were about 60.8 million cases of the swine flu with 12,469 deaths in the United States.

Unlike COVID-19, swine flu targeted the younger population, who health officials said had little to no existing immunity. Nearly one-third of people over 60 had antibodies against the virus, making CDC experts believe these people were likely exposed to an older version of the virus earlier in their lives.

Since the swine flu was very different from seasonal influenza, vaccination with flu vaccines offered little protection. After the peak of illness in the U.S., a vaccine to this strain of H1N1 was produced. According to the CDC, people are still infected with, hospitalized and die from the swine flu.

SARS

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, which spread around the globe in 2003, was a respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus similar to COVID-19. First reported in Asia, SARS spread to more than 20 countries.

According to the World Health Organization, 8,098 people worldwide became sick with SARS during and 774 people died. The CDC said only eight patients in the U.S. had laboratory-confirmed as SARS cases and there were no SARS-related deaths in this country.

Much like how COVID-19 has spread, the first people in the U.S. impacted by SARS had traveled to other parts of the world where the infection was spreading.

Hong Kong flu

This 1968 pandemic was caused by an influenza A (H3N2) virus comprised of two genes from an avian influenza A virus, including a new H3 hemagglutinin, but also contained the N2 neuraminidase from the 1957 H2N2 virus.

The first record of the outbreak in Hong Kong appeared in July 1968 and quickly spread to Vietnam and Singapore, then around the world. The virus entered California from returning Vietnam War troops and became widespread in the United States by December.

This flu killed an estimated 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Most excess deaths were in people 65 years and older.

The H3N2 virus continues to circulate worldwide as a seasonal influenza A virus. According to the CDC, between 9 and 45 million Americans catch the seasonal flu each year, depending on the particular strain of the virus circulating and the effectiveness of that year’s vaccine. It takes from 12,000 to 61,000 lives annually.

Asian flu

From 1956-1958, an outbreak of Influenza A would travel from China to the U.S., killing 2 million people worldwide according to the WHO. Its impact on East Asia dubbed this strain the Asian flu.

In its two-year spree, the H2N2 sub-type killed about 69,800 people in the U.S.

This flu varied in symptoms from a minor cough and a slight fever to pneumonia. Those unaffected by this type of the flu were believed to have protective antibodies to other closely related strains of influenza.

The death rate was curbed by the quick development of a vaccine and the availability of antibiotics to treat secondary infections.

Spanish flu

The 1918 flu pandemic was the most severe pandemic in recent history, according to the CDC.

The illness, dubbed the Spanish flu, rapidly spread worldwide from 1918-1919, infecting nearly a third of the global population. Health records show it killed an estimated 50 million people around the world with an estimated 675,000 of those deaths in the United States.

Because of the lack of public health record-keeping at the time, there are no firm numbers of the lives it took in Florida, but University of South Florida historian Gary Mormino said nearly one-third of Jacksonville’s residents -- estimated about 90,000 people at the time -- contracted the flu. It was reported that 400 people died in Jacksonville in just one month: October 1918.

The death rate was for healthy people in the 20-40 year age group was unusual during the 1918 influenza pandemic.

There were no vaccines or antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections associated with the flu.

Public health control efforts resorted to isolation, quarantine, personal hygiene and limitations of public gatherings -- much like how medical leaders are advising to handle the coronavirus. Like during the current COVID-19 pandemic, these public health control efforts were applied unevenly across the globe.

To this date, there is no consensus about where the virus originated.


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