A Turn to Normal

May 3, 2020

by Steve Stofka

Deaths from the Covid-19 virus passed a milestone this week. More people have died from the virus than the number of Americans who died fighting the Vietnam War (Strochlic, 2020). I wanted to compare that with other gruesome milestones.

One hundred years ago, the Spanish flu killed 675,000 Americans (CDC, 2019). 62,000 were World War 1 soldiers, more than the number of war casualties (Gilbert, 1998). That is our next milestone. The flu was called the Spanish flu only because newspapers in neutral Spain first reported the disease (Flanagan, 2020). Under wartime restrictions, the media in other countries were not allowed to report the casualties.

Some talking heads have portrayed this disease as just a bad flu. Is it? During the moderately bad 2018-2019 flu season there were 490,000 people hospitalized (CDC, 2019/01). The 2017-2018 flu season was severe. The CDC estimates that 800,000 people were hospitalized for that season’s flu (CDC, 2019/11).  The agency reports 136,000 people hospitalized for Covid-19 (CDC, 2020). That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

 New York City has about 40,000 Covid-19 hospitalizations, 3/8ths of those in the entire country (NYC, 2020). A 2012 survey by the city identified about 26,000 hospital beds (NYC-IBO, 2012). Large city mayors around the country look in horror at the refrigerated trucks parked outside some NYC hospitals to hold the dead bodies.  

Nine million people live in NYC. The Census Bureau estimates that there are 327 million Americans, more than 30 times the number living in NYC. I will use a 20x multiplier instead of 30x. Multiplying 136,000 Covid-19 hospitalizations by 20 produces 2.7 million hospitalizations, 3-1/2 times the severe flu season of 2017-18.

The American Hospital Association estimates that there are about one million beds in the U.S. (AHA, 2020). In an emergency, hospitals can increase their bed count but not when the emergency is a highly infectious disease. Areas of the hospital must be set aside exclusively for Covid-19 patients.

The first wave of the Spanish flu epidemic washed over the U.S. in the spring of 1918. The tsunami – the killing wave – came in the fall of that year, when many people thought the worst had passed.  We all want to get back to normal, even if that is a new normal. We hope that normal does not invite abnormal.



Photo by 丁亦然 on Unsplash

AHA. (2020, February). Fast Facts on U.S. Hospitals, 2020: AHA. Retrieved from https://www.aha.org/statistics/fast-facts-us-hospitals

CDC. (2020, January 8). Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States – 2018–2019 influenza season. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2018-2019.html

CDC. (2019, March 20). 1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html

CDC. (2019, November 22). Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical visits, Hospitalizations, and Deaths in the United States – 2017–2018 influenza season. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2017-2018.htm

CDC. (2020, April 24). COVID-View Weekly Summary. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/covid-data/covidview/index.html

Flanagan, E. (2020, March 14). Spanish flu: How Belfast newspapers reported 1918 pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-51818777

Gilbert, M. (1998). A history of the twentieth century. London: HarperCollins. (p. 532).

NYC. (2020, May 1). COVID-19: Data. Retrieved from https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data.page

NYC-IBO. (2012, November 15). How Many of the City’s Hospitals, and Hospital Beds, Were at Risk During Hurricane Sandy. Retrieved from https://ibo.nyc.ny.us/iboreports/printnycbtn5.pdf

Strochlic, N. (2020, April 28). U.S. coronavirus deaths now surpass fatalities in the Vietnam War. National Geographic. Retrieved from https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/2020/04/coronavirus-death-toll-vietnam-war-cvd/

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