HomeLifestyleHealth & FitnessThe 1918 Flu or COVID-19? Which disease was deadlier for New Yorkers

The 1918 Flu or COVID-19? Which disease was deadlier for New Yorkers

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Residents of New York City have experienced their share of health crises over the last century, but a new study suggests that this year’s COVID-19 pandemic may have been more deadly than even the 1918 flu pandemic.

After crunching the numbers from New York City during the 1918 flu epidemic’s worst two months (October-November of that year) and the two months surrounding this year’s COVID-19 outbreak’s peak (March 11-May 11), researchers concluded that the latter may have been the more lethal.

After adjusting for historical changes in public hygiene and medical care, “the relative increase [in NYC deaths] during the early COVID-19 period was significantly greater than during the peak of the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic,” according to a team of researchers writing in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Dr Jeremy Faust of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston led the research. He and his colleagues combed through US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data on New York deaths from 1914 to 1918 and compared them to figures compiled by the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene for 2020, as well as the US Census Bureau data for the city from 2017 to 2020.

Faust’s group discovered that approximately 31,600 New Yorkers died from any cause during the two “peak” pandemic months of 1918, out of a total population of 5.5 million. In 2020, during the pandemic’s peak two months, the rate was lower — approximately 33,500 deaths in a population of nearly 8.3 million.

However, as Faust’s team noted, those figures do not tell the whole storey. That is because the “baseline” mortality rate for New Yorkers in 1918 was more than double what it is today.

Thus, when “improvements in hygiene and modern achievements in medicine, public health, and safety” over the last century were taken into account, COVID-19 actually hit New Yorkers harder than the 1918 pandemic, based on death rates.

Indeed, the study authors noted that “it is unknown how many deaths due to SARS-CoV-2 infection have been prevented” as a result of modern lifesaving technologies and drugs.

They believe their findings teach Americans a lesson about whether lockdowns and mask orders were lifted prematurely, as the country continues to experience the highest rates of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the world.

A “prudent” return to such measures, Faust and his colleagues believe, could avoid the exhaustion of critical supplies of lifesaving resources in the coming weeks and beyond.

Dr Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Manhattan’s Lenox Hill Hospital, witnessed the pandemic’s devastation firsthand.

“What’s clear is that excess deaths related to COVID-19 in 2020 or the Spanish flu in 1918 significantly added to the overall number of deaths during both pandemics,” he said in response to the new study.

Glatter agreed with the authors of the study that “in order to reduce ongoing deaths and morbidity, we need to consider reinstituting or extending shutdowns in areas that continue to experience high cases, increasing hospitalizations and escalating deaths.”

Dr Eric Cioe-Pena, Northwell Health’s global health director in Great Neck, New York, concurred. He described the new study as a stark reminder of the magnitude of this [COVID] pandemic and the speed with which this virus can kill.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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