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Our 1918 Pandemic – the numbers then and now

We have been exploring what happened during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic with a focus on its impacts in our region. One cannot help but consider this information through our own experience of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic plaguing our world, nation, and region.

Comparing these pandemics can help us better understand each and may help us reach a clearer understanding of our current pandemic journey.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary will help guide our understanding of three related terms we use when addressing infectious disease. An “outbreak” is a sudden rise in the incidence (number of cases) of a disease. A disease outbreak becomes “epidemic” when it affects a large number of persons in a population, community, or region at the same time. An epidemic becomes a “pandemic” when it occurs over a wide geographic area such as multiple countries or continents and typically affects a significant proportion of the population.

The numbers of persons sickened and killed by these two pandemics reveals their tragic scope, but also provides an opportunity to compare and contrast their impacts.

Epidemiologists and historians investigating the 1918-19 pandemic have limited records of its cost in global sickness and death, so they can only offer estimates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates about 500 million persons were infected by pandemic influenza in 1918-19 and, citing earlier epidemiological studies, estimates a worldwide death toll of at least 50 million persons. Demographers estimate the global population in 1918 at about 1.8 billion persons. These figures suggest that about 30% of the world’s population was infected during that pandemic and that it killed about 2.7% of that population.

We have more complete records of the current COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization, which collects global pandemic data, lists 122,524,424 confirmed COVID-19 cases and a global death toll of 2,703,620 persons. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the current global population as about 7.75 billion persons. This means that the COVID-19 pandemic has infected at least 1.5% of the world’s population and has killed a much smaller fraction of a percent of that population.

The U.S. has incomplete data from its 1918-1919 influenza epidemic, but the Centers for Disease Control estimates the U.S. death toll as at least 675,000 persons. The U.S. National Archives estimates about one-quarter of the U.S. population was infected. The Census Bureau estimates the US population in 1918 as 103,208,000 persons. These figures suggest the 1918-1919 U.S. epidemic infected about 25.8 million Americans and killed about .6% of the U.S. population.

The U.S. collects detailed data about the current, COVID-19 epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control reports 29,613,017 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and has recorded 539,038 COVID-19 deaths as of March 21, 2021. The Census Bureau estimates our current population as 330,153,000 persons. These figures mean the current U.S. epidemic has infected 8.9% of Americans and killed .16% of our population.

Minnesota has no estimate of citizens infected during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. Minnesota’s 1920 census showed 2,387,125 residents, which we might round to 2,300,000 in 1918. If we apply the estimate of the U.S. influenza infection percentage in 1918 to Minnesota’s population in 1918, we end up with a rough estimate of 575,000 persons infected. The Minnesota State Board of Health reported 8,387 influenza deaths during the last three months of 1918 and January 1919, which was the height of Minnesota’s epidemic. This suggests the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic killed about .36% of our state population.

The Minnesota Department of Health collects data on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in the state. Their report for March 21, 2021 lists 505,224 confirmed cases and 6,771 deaths. The Minnesota State Demographic Center estimated a population of 5,680,337 persons in 2019. These figures mean that 8.8% of Minnesotans have contracted COVID-19 and the disease has killed .11% of our population.

The Lyon County News-Messenger reported 68 deaths in and near Lyon County from influenza or pneumonia during the height of the local epidemic. We believe this number does not account for all who died in Tracy and Minneota as these communities had their own newspapers and the News-Messenger did not regularly carry their stories. The News-Messenger reported multiple communities having dozens of cases each at different times during the height of the local epidemic. This suggests infections easily reaching hundreds of cases and possibly in the low thousands for the county. Lyon County’s 1920 census showed a population of 18,837, which we can adjust downward to an estimate of 18,500 for 1918. This suggests the 1918-1919 epidemic killed about .36% of the county’s population.

The Minnesota Department of Health collects data on confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths in Lyon County. The report for March 21, 2021 lists 3,092 confirmed cases and 46 deaths. The Bureau of the Census estimates the county’s 2019 population at 25,474. This means our local epidemic has infected 12% and killed .18% of our population.

Comparing these sets of figures from the two pandemics, we can see that while both exacted terrible tolls in suffering and death, the catastrophic human costs of the pandemic of 1918-1919 were on a scale well beyond what we have experienced to-date from the COVID-19 pandemic. But our understanding of the cost in sickness and death of our current pandemic is incomplete because we have not yet seen its conclusion.

What these numbers cannot reveal, however, is how our world, nation, and region responded to these pandemics and how those responses may have influenced the cost of each. We will compare and assess those responses to each pandemic next time.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com.

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