Aug. 13 (UPI) — Deaths from COVID-19 in New York City during the first two months of the outbreak were “remarkably comparable” to those seen in the city at the height of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, according to an analysis published Thursday by JAMA Network Open.
“Excess deaths” in the city in the first two months of the new coronavirus outbreak were about 70% as high as those recorded during the peak of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, likely because of population growth, the researchers said.
While some have suggested the 1918-1919 flu pandemic was far worse than the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, researchers said that deaths for the two are comparable. But without modern medicine, the new coronavirus likely would be killing far more people.
The city reported more than 33,000 total deaths from all causes between March 11 and May 11 — for a death rate of 202 deaths per 100,000 people in the general population.
The death rate for New York City during the height of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic — October and November of 1918 — was 287 deaths per 100,000 people in the general population, researchers said.
“These crises caused death rates along the same order of magnitude,” study co-author Dr. Jeremy Faust told UPI.
“They were remarkably comparable in their effects on death rates in New York City in the time periods we assessed,” said Faust, an emergency medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “I only hope what we had in March and April [with COVID-19] was the worst of it.”
New York City has an estimated 8.28 million residents in 2020, compared with population of 5.5 million in 1918, Faust and his colleagues said.
Through Thursday, the city reported more than 225,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 22,000 deaths linked to the virus, according to New York City’s health department. That makes it the hardest-hit community in the country in terms of total deaths.
More than 5.2 million Americans have been infected with the virus, and nearly 170,000 have died, according to the latest figures from Johns Hopkins University.
An estimated 675,000 Americans died in the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, “excess deaths” — the number of deaths reported during the COVID-19 pandemic compared with a “normal” year — could provide a more accurate picture of the virus’ impact, researchers have suggested.
For their analysis, Faust and his colleagues analyzed CDC death statistics for both pandemics, comparing them to population and death figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The researchers then compared figures from March 11 through May 11 of this year — the first 61 days of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York City — to the worst 61 days of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic in New York, October and November 1918.
New York City reported 33,465 deaths between March 11 and May 11 of this year, compared to 31,589 deaths in October and November 1918, the researchers said.
The death rate for the city in the years before the 1918-1919 pandemic was roughly 100 per 100,000 people, the researchers said.
New York City’s death rate in March through May of this year — 202 deaths per 100,000 people — exceeded the “normal” death rate for the same period in 2018 and 2019 by roughly 150 deaths per 100,000.
In 2018 and 2019, the death rate for that same two-month period was 50 deaths per 100,000 people, they said.
The 1918 flu death rate of 287 deaths per 100,000 exceeded the normal death rate at that time by 187 deaths per 100,000, the researchers said.
The city’s higher population in 2020 accounts for the lower rate of deaths from COVID-19, they said.
In addition, enhancements in medical care — including intensive care units, mechanical ventilators and drugs like steroids — “gives us advantages that our predecessors did not have,” Faust said.
“We can also save lives caused by secondary bacterial infections that respond to antibiotics that they did not have 100 years ago,” he said. “If it were not for that, it could be that COVID-19 is a more lethal virus than 1918 was.”