How Will Coronavirus Pandemic Deaths Compare to the 1957 Flu Pandemic?

Social distancing and lockdowns today are why deaths from the two pandemics might be comparable.


How many Americans are going to die of COVID-19? We have been treated to estimates ranging from a catastrophic 2.2 million deaths conjured by an epidemiological model that assumed that people would do nothing in reaction to the pandemic to surmises that the death rate might not be much worse than seasonal flu.

Speaking to CNN's Jake Tapper, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths could occur. Fauci quickly added that he didn't want to be held to that figure given model imperfections and constantly shifting pandemic trends. Earlier this week, President Donald Trump proffered that keeping the COVID-19 pandemic death rate to between 100,000 and 200,000 would mean that "we altogether have done a very good job."

The White House coronavirus task force is reportedly taking into account the disease and deaths projections made by the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) model. If current social distancing and stay-at-home requirements are sustained through May, the model estimates that about 84,000 Americans will die of COVID-19 by the beginning of August. The model also forecasts that COVID-19 will peak on April 15 at around 2,214 daily deaths and that June 28 is likely to be the first day where COVID-19 deaths fall below 100 per day.

Interestingly, the number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths projected by the IHME model is similar to those that occurred during the 1957-58 pandemic flu. Researchers estimate that the global case-fatality rate—the percentage of infected patients who died of the disease—was about 0.67 percent for that flu pandemic. That is substantially higher than the typical seasonal flu rate of around 0.1 percent. For the United States, researchers estimate that about 25 percent of Americans were infected by that strain of influenza, killing about 116,000 of them. That would yield a case-fatality rate of 0.27 percent, about three times worse than the seasonal flu average. (A rough calculation assuming a 25 percent infection rate and the same case-fatality rate would project about 223,000 deaths from the current COVID-19 epidemic.)

One of the crucial differences between the 1957-58 flu and the current novel coronavirus epidemic is that no social distancing was implemented as public health policy back in the 1950s. In fact, a special late August 1957 meeting of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers in Washington, D.C., concluded that, "there is no practical advantage in the closing of schools or the curtailment of public gatherings as it relates to the spread of this disease."

A 2009 article in the journal Biosecurity and Bioterrorism noted that "no efforts were made to quarantine individuals or groups [in 1957-58], and a deliberate decision was made not to cancel or postpone large meetings such as conferences, church gatherings, or athletic events for the purpose of reducing transmission. No attempt was made to limit travel or to otherwise screen travelers." Schools opened as usual and the disease swept across the entire country.

The Biosecurity and Bioterrorism authors concluded that the 1957 outbreak did not appear to have a significant impact on the U.S. economy. They cited a 2006 Congressional Budget Office calculation suggesting that another flu pandemic the size of the one in 1957-58 might reduce real GDP for the year by 1 percent but would likely not result in a recession. In cold-blooded terms, boosting the number of deaths by 100,000 above the annual toll of 1.7 million in 1957 had no deep and lasting effects on the U.S. economy.

As my Reason colleague Jacob Sullum asks, "Is preventing COVID-19 deaths worth a severe recession?" Sullum cogently argues that the answer depends on the lethality of the disease. Unfortunately, the public, politicians, and public health officials won't have a clear answer to that vital question until population screening using serological antibody tests for COVID-19 infections is done.

My Reason colleague Brian Doherty cites a brand new study that suggests that early adoption of stringent public health measures, e.g., closing down schools, theaters, churches, and so forth, in response to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic actually experienced a more robust economic bounce back than cities that reacted more slowly.

In the meantime, assuming that the epidemiological models are even approximately right, the chief reason why the number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. may be held down to 1957 pandemic flu levels is because modern public health officials have recommended social distancing measures instead of just letting the current epidemic run its course.

NEXT: The World Health Organization Classified Video Game Addiction as a Disorder. Now It’s Telling People to Play Video Games.

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  1. So past events are not applicable to this event, because it turns out this time is different.
    Damn, whodathunkit?

    1. Ron, you could have cited this relevant post.

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  2. So if this thing doesn’t break 84,000 and we are currently going through a peak now who will fall on the sword and be held responsible for the flawed model and how will they be punished for costing the taxpayer and us economy trillions of dollars? Should we bill the model makers? asking as a concerned business owner facing the prospect of bankruptcy over this. I’m guessing this will be held as a victory lap and sorry you fucked up you trusted us moment ala animal house for the hosed business owners. As opposed to a colossal fuckup.

    1. fall on the sword

      You mean, “take full responsibility”?

      1. I originally typed “take full responsibility” but realized this was the gov./university system were are talking about. So fall on the sword is more apt for what’s to happen if blame get’s assigned at all. Which it won’t/

        1. You were right the first time. Janet Reno “took full responsibility” for how the Branch Davidian siege turned out, which somehow meant she didn’t go to jail, suffer any monetary penalty, or even lose her job. Maybe she just felt really, really bad about it?

          Texas is now shut down until the end of April. Though that crippled little weasel Abbott won’t come out and call it a quarantine order. Fuck that guy.

    2. Nobody. On the contrary, the politicians and bureaucrats will be congratulating themselves on “saving” millions of lives, and the people who made the model used to promote this hysteria will get even more funding.

  3. In cold-blooded terms, boosting the number of deaths by 100,000 above the annual toll of 1.7 million in 1957 had no deep and lasting effects on the U.S. economy.

    Americans were apparently heartless monsters back then.

    1. I’m betting the large majority of Americans had no idea there was a pandemic in 1957.

      1. Also we lose 1.68 million a year to heart disease our penchant for allowing people to eat themselves to death is horrific.

      2. This article was the first time I’d ever heard of it, and I know a great many people (including both parents!) who were adults at the time.

        1. It was called (gasp) the Asian flu, and it recurred in the sixties.
          My dad ended up hospitalized from it but fully recovered, in the Sixties recurrence.

          1. Hong Kong Flu, in that little infographic of pandemics through history. I’d not heard of it until that blurb.

        2. There was a film on CSPAN over the weekend made as it was unfolding.

          Apparently they were also able to develop a vaccine pretty quickly.

      3. I’m betting the large majority of Americans had no idea there was a pandemic in 1957.

        Not true. My own mother, one of the often vilified public school teachers here, knew full well there was a serious virus across the land as she carried me to term. She was worried stupid about the effect the virus might have on me and her.

        But she had recently been through a world depression and a world war. Being of somewhat tougher stuff, she bulled on through and we are BOTH still here to tell the tale.

        Courage people!

        1. I think most people vilify the teachers’ unions and a certain type of teacher, the sjw type who couldn’t cut it in any other field. It is pretty much a well known fact that our current teachers colleges are sub par at best anymore. Some really good people go into teaching but many become very disillusioned once the encounter the beast that is teachers unions and the bureaucracy.

          1. Thanks sm76, much appreciated.

            Mom agrees with you regarding the unions and the sjws. My parents were of a generation unlike those of today. I fear we may not see their like again.

      4. Yup. In fact, even here, nobody has mentioned the 1968 Flu which killed about 100K Americans (as opposed to 116K in ’58) with it’s 1968 season and several echo pandemics for the next several years. At least in the case of the ’68 flu, it tended to take the old and sick almost exclusively; 1957 had a much younger target for victims.
        Of course, in 1968, as in 1918, there were a number of other worldwide, say, “distractions”. In 1957 the nation had just been through a far more distracting epidemic with a resurgence of polio. In that case, America actually did practice social distancing, at least among kids. And the “miracle” of the Salk and Sabin vaccines helped to give Americans a lot of confidence in their doctors at the time.

  4. Social-distancing guidelines to stay 6 feet from others may be woefully inadequate, one scientist warns — saying the coronavirus can travel 27 feet and linger for hours.

    MIT associate professor Lydia Bourouiba, who has researched the dynamics of coughs and sneezes for years, warns in newly published research that the current guidelines are based on outdated models from the 1930s.

    Good grief.

    1. jesus christ.

      1. I went to do some shopping and the stores had tape lines on the floor to signal distances.

        I moved in real close to people in line. Some moved out of my way. It was fun. Some of us customers just laughed at the hysteria.

        1. You sound like an asshole.

          1. no, just one who can poke at stupid ideas and policies.
            Think about it; Eight people waiting in the line to pick up their meds from the drugpusher. Blue masking tape “x”s on the floor at one fathom distance. Wicket empty number one moves to the counter NUmber two through eight move ahead.. two steps. I’m umber four in line. WHO is now breathing IN what I just exhaled before I took that two steps? And whose very intimate breath am I now breathing? WHen is the last time you studied someone smoking a cigarette in an inddor setting? Do that some time. As the smoke begins to drift away from the exhaler, watch as it spreads in every which direction, fairly quickly,m and for quite some distance. You can SEE the smoke because of the particles and such You cannot see what Charlie two places behind me has exhaled, nor watch to see where it spreads.

            WHY have they closed all the parks, boat launches, etc? What healthier thing to do instead of sitting about cooped up un the dungeon you refer to as YOUR flat, than to get OUTSIDE, at least fifty feet from wnyone with whom you do not live, exercising, breating deeply of clean sanitised (by UV and ozone and oxygen) air, maybe even work your heart rate a couple ticks above comtose Stage One…… and exhaling your own breath to be cleansed by the above mentioned items. But no, some dimwit ignoramus sitting in an office somewhere surrounded by flunkies and flappers declares that I the Royal Guvner d hereby pronounce and declare that EVERYONE (except me and mine) must go home and sequester yourselves indoors, vegging on the TeeVee set until I say so.

            Not asshole talk at all, just a touch of reality. Deal.

          2. You sound like chicken little.
            Thrilled that the economy has been taken over, wholesale, but the government?
            Get off your knees.

          3. Not only do you sound like a lying piece of shit, you are one.

    2. Yeah, outliers certainly “can” happen. If you constantly make policy based only on worst-case scenario assumptions you’re going to waste a lot of resources, though.

      The “it can incubate for 14-28 days!” hysteria is particularly annoying.

  5. The first thing Trump should have done was name Obama as the Covid-19 czar.
    Not only would the hysterical media shut the hell up but Barack would have picked up another Nobel prize, probably would have swept all the categories.
    The second thing would be to announce that the Clinton foundation has agreed to distribute all it’s funds to fighting the virus.

    1. Presumably without first discussing the subject with Obama, right?

      1. Exactly.

      2. That is even brilliianter!!

      3. Or Clinton He and/or She

    2. That is brilliant!

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  6. I saw at a source I cannot find, that we are down about 9000 deaths/week, possibly due to less driving and less ‘hold my beer’ incidents. Compared to 2700 cv deaths. Social distancing for the win!

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  9. Who cares if it’s 10K, 100K, or 1M? The economic devastation will make those numbers meaningless. We will have long buried our dead but recovery from this nonsense is going to lead to much much worse problems.

    The governor of MD and the DC mayor think they can just arrest anyone who might be out and about. The government at all levels are just awful. Remember that when you vote. How they failed you miserably and ran up the debt on your kids and grandkids.

    1. Anybody who doesn’t care about the economic ramifications of this is currently still collecting a paycheck and this has little to no impact on their lifestyle. #inthistogethter #flattenthecurve #stillcollectingapaycheck.

    2. I can imagine about 90,000 people who care if the number is 100,000 versus 10,000.

      1. “I can imagine about 90,000 people who care if the number is 100,000 versus 10,000.”

        I can imagine a couple of hundred million who should be more concerned regarding the wholesale government takeover of the economy.

    3. I work in a hospital with COVID-19 patients. I am 62 years old and male. I have a paycheck. Yet I am still MORE worried about the economic effects downstream.

      Two years from now there will be a vaccine widely distributed for this virus. But the economic devastation will impact my “declining” years over the next two decades.

      1. And the people who hastily develop and produce that vaccine will ASSURE us it WORKS.. far better than ANY of the previous corona vaccines they’ve foisted upon us these past three or four decades. My Dad faithfully let them poke him in the arm with all the new” flu shots and vacccines….. Musta got three or four such jabs a year, for decades. He died of Parkinsons… known to have a VERY high correlation withhigh levels of aluminium, thymerisol, mercury, in the body. And they are silly enough to think I will be getting those vaccines? Nope.
        THEN there are the ten or so thousand who die of reactions and complications to those fl vaccines. And those who get vaccinated with the “right one” each year and STILL get them, some dying from it., So the vaccines seem to kill or maim almost as many as the flu itself does. With current statistics for death rates, if one is reasonably healtjy one stands a better chance of living another year by strengthening their own immune system to make it work again, be diligent and vigilant, get OUTSIDE and MOVE, mind your supplements, and just live your life… you stand a better chance of living another year than if you wart yourself to death on some stringpuller’s dire prognostications threatening that you will be in the grave by CHristmas if you refuse the vaccine we want to sell you. then letting them inject you with it.
        What, wasn’t it something like fiftypercent of the populatoin at large who died of the seasonal flu last year had HAD the silly virus, had gotten the current version vaccine early in the season,

  10. Brian Doherty cites a brand new study that suggests that early adoption of stringent public health measures, e.g., closing down schools, theaters, churches, and so forth, in response to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic actually experienced a more robust economic bounce back”

    Yea but did the government also spend trillions in order to bankrupt the country and did they also close all business

    1. This is an outstanding point. The 2 trillion dollar spending package along with another couple of trillion dollars from the Fed should give a brief boost followed by a long and deep bust. But we have yet to see any significant inflation over the last, well, forever. So something is broken about our economic model. There should be no way to deficit spend 2 trillion dollars a year plus add in another four trillion dollars worth of money printing plus another four trillion dollars worth of stimulus spending over the course of little more than a decade and not have the Weimar Republic.

      1. Agreed! This is my concern for the future.

        I can’t work forever. I’ve worked a lifetime to amass a very small pile of assets to see me through my later years. I am fearful that it will all evaporate as a result of this crisis.

        1. Have no cares for your future. At least one candidate for the LP nomination thinks the U.S. should go cold turkey on social security and medicare. I’m certain all reasonable people, including the 65 million getting s.s. benefits, will agree.

    2. “…Yea but did the government also spend trillions in order to bankrupt the country and did they also close all business…”

      I can tell you that in ’57, the government did no close down businesses or schools, nor did any level of government claim the authority to tell me when and under what circumstances I could leave the house.
      The economic disaster we’re watching develop is matched by the loss of liberty which is now assumed to be the purview of governments under any sort of ’emergency’.

  11. The KungFlu hysteria needs to stop.

  12. This won’t break 20K. Even with nothing done, it would’ve been fine.

    The hysteria is stupid .

    1. Well, we shall see if your prognostications is correct fairly soon. New York is quickly approaching the number of infected from Italy. So within two or three weeks if the disease is actually as lethal is Italy suggests, New York should surpass your number all by itself.

  13. Hopefully we will have developed convincing virtual reality by the next pandemic. Then we can finally transition into the matrix forever.

  14. >>is that no social distancing was implemented as public health policy back in the 1950s

    was working well enough at the mere suggestion in 2020 idk why the Orders came down like rain … well i mean i *know* why but it’s bullshit.

  15. “…Dr. Anthony Fauci suggested that between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths could occur. Fauci quickly added that he didn’t want to be held to that figure…”

    In which case, kindly STFU.

  16. I was wondering if anyone was every going to bring up the 1957 flu. It was much closer to what we are experiencing than the 1918 one.

    But my guess is that even 1957 was worse than what we have. I’m thinking we might be more like 1968.

    In any case, when comparing deaths, be sure to account for population increase.

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