Coronavirus News

Potential second wave could prove similar to 1918 pandemic, UH medical historian says

Based on historical data, a UH medical historian said a second wave of new coronavirus infections could prove similar to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic.

Associate director for the Honors College Medicine and Society Program Helen Valier has been analyzing the similarities COVID-19 has to diseases from the past.

“Infectious disease outbreaks are biologically inevitable, but huge loss of life seldom is,” Valier said. “Like any large-scale infectious disease outbreak past or present, public policy and other social factors play a huge role in how many deaths there will be at different times and in different places.”

Looking back at the Spanish flu, there were three waves. At the end of the third wave, around a third of the world’s total population was infected and upwards of 50 million died, Valier said.

The second wave proved to be deadlier than the first in regards to the Spanish flu.

Valier said injured troops returning in large numbers to the U.S. in 1918 is part of what drove the second wave of the Spanish flu. 

Valier told KHOU the second wave of the Spanish flu had a more severe effect on those in their 20s and 30s. This had an overall effect on the economy as this age group was considered the most productive.

In talking about the differences social distancing makes, Valier said death tolls from the Spanish flu reflected the degree of intervention government officials took.

“In the places where local public health officials, local city and county politicians could see eye to eye over closures, masking rules, phased reopening, etc., deaths tended to be lower,” Valier said. “In places where there was less agreement and less coordination, (the death toll was) higher.”

An example Valier uses is the Philadelphia Liberty Loans Parade going ahead in September 1918 despite the pleas of public health officials.

Within a few days, Philadelphia recorded the highest death toll of any U.S. metro area during the crisis.

“The lesson I think is that so much about this disease is new and uncertain,” Valier said. “But, we have dealt with new and uncertain diseases before and we will now so long as we remember that not everything about our pandemic response is new.”

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