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A scientific study attracted national attention last week by taking the dramatic position that the “excess deaths” from COVID-19 exceeded those observed with the Spanish Flu of 1918, at least for New York City. The absurdity of the claim is symptomatic of the imperfect understanding of the pandemic by this nation’s elites. To be sure, the letter correctly notes that the state of healthcare today is far better and more advanced than that of a century ago given the widespread availability of such impressive treatments as “standard resuscitation, supplemental oxygen, mechanical ventilation, kidney replacement therapy, and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.” Indeed, those technological advances indicate that the true severity of COVID-19 is even greater than the raw numbers suggest.
With that said, the study is flawed in several key ways. The estimated number of total U.S. deaths from the Spanish Flu was 675,000 in a population of about 100 million people. Assuming there have been about 169,000 U.S. COVID-19 deaths in 2020 in a population of over 330 million people, the COVID-19 death rate is roughly one-twelfth of the Spanish Flu rate. That number could well increase before the pandemic runs its course. According to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the U.S. death toll of COVID-19 could reach 300,000 by December, at which point the ratio would be about 7.5 to 1.