Bysurpassing 116,000, Covid-19 deaths in the United States have now officially exceeded the number of total deaths from flu outbreaks or any other infectious disease outbreak in a single year or season since the 1918–19 influenza pandemic.
Already, the pandemic had surpassed the combined U.S. deaths from the entire Vietnam and Korean wars, on both total numbers and per capita. And while deaths per capita were higher in the 1957–58 and 1968–69 flu seasons than in the current pandemic, this one is far from over, experts say, and if the current wave continues into fall and potentially builds, as health experts now fear, those per capita milestones could be surpassed, too.
Article and graphic updated June 15.
While no single statistic tells the tale of Covid-19, I sought some perspective on deaths in relation to total population figures at the time various events occurred. The chart, which shows death rates as a percentage of the entire population at the time, is not intended to shed light on how or when physical distancing and other Covid-19 preventive measures should be relaxed or strengthened. It is, rather, just a different way of looking at the numbers on a per capita basis, and only at a moment in time. (Note that mortality rates can be calculated as a percentage of the population but are also sometimes expressed as deaths per 100,000 people or as a percentage of those who were infected.)
The 1918–19 flu pandemic remains by far the deadliest single-event infectious disease outbreak in U.S. history, in total numbers and on a per capita basis. Only HIV/AIDS, which has killed more than 700,000 Americans, has had a higher death total among infectious diseases, though playing out across four decades.
The actual total of Covid-19 deaths is likely higher than the tally presented here, given that as many as 9,000 deaths in the country which were likely due to the disease but were not recorded as such, according to a CDC study published April 28. And on May 11, the CDC said another 5,000 deaths in New York City, from March through May, may have been caused by Covid-19 but not officially counted as such.
A makeshift hospital set up in Brookline, Massachusetts, during the 1918–19 influenza pandemic
Another important number behind the numbers, one that is sometimes stated incorrectly: The average number of U.S. flu deaths for the past nine seasons (2010–11 through 2018–19) is 37,461. The range is 12,000 to 61,000. But annual flu deaths are always estimated by the CDC, rather than involving firm numbers. The reported figures involve complex math and assumptions about unreported cases.
A recent analysis by Jeremy Faust, MD, who practices emergency medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, suggests that the CDC grossly overstates flu deaths, and therefore Covid-19 has so far “killed between 9.5 and 44 times more people than seasonal flu.”
More deaths ahead
By all estimates, this pandemic is far from over. Though the daily number of new cases has been falling nationwide, most of the drop has been in New York City and other eastern population centers. New cases are rising in more than a third of states, and spiking in several.
The seven-day average pace of deaths has fallen below 1,000 for the first time since early April, but if the curve of new cases rises, so will deaths.
Because states have loosened stay-at-home orders and businesses have opened up, the first wave of infections hasn’t ended. Epidemiologists now say the wave will likely just keep rolling right through summer and possibly grow larger, with heightened risk this fall as people begin spending more time indoors again.