The researchers then looked at deaths in October and November of 1918, the peak of the city’s flu outbreak. They found detailed mortality statistics collected by the Census Bureau, which was then a relatively new agency, and archived by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Faust identified 31,589 deaths among 5.5 million city residents, for an incident rate of 287.17 deaths per 100,000 person-months. This number was nearly three times higher than the city’s death rate in the previous three years. In all, the death rate in the city last spring was about 70 percent of that seen in 1918.
When the epidemic hit in 1918, the spike in deaths was not as shocking to the city as it was in 2020. At the time, the increase in deaths was less than three times higher than the previous year’s toll, the researchers noted, whereas 2020’s rise was more than four times higher than 2019’s figure.
Simply put, life was riskier a hundred years ago.
“It was a less healthy and a less safe world,” Dr. Faust said. In one sense, he added, “we’re worse off today than in 1918,” because we started from a much safer, technologically advanced place. The impact of an epidemic should have been dramatically lower today, not slightly lower.
Indeed, people today are conditioned by the “medical industrial complex” to think that all diseases can be conquered, said Nancy Tomes, a historian of American health care at Stony Brook University.
That may be why many Americans, particularly those who believe the pandemic is overblown, are so angered to find that a virus has upended their lives, she added.