The COVID-19 pandemic, like World War II, is an era-defining episode marked by a staggering number of deaths. The two are intertwined in this first month of 2021, because by the end of it, the pandemic will probably have taken more American lives than the war did. And the number of COVID deaths vs World War II losses could give everybody living through a pandemic some needed context.
In a USA Today article most recently updated Jan. 20, the authors pointed out that in the 1,347 days from the Pearl Harbor bombing in 1941 to V-J Day in 1945, 405,399 Americans died fighting in World War II. In less than a quarter of that time, in about 300 days or so, more than 410,000 Americans have lost their lives to COVID-19—and that number shows no immediate signs of slowing.
In fact, as CNN reported, the nation could face an additional 100,000 deaths by the end of February (as of Feb. 10, more than 464,000 Americans had died), according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projections.
USA Today noted that in recent weeks, “COVID-19 deaths have risen so steadily that the rate of American deaths could be measured in seconds. An American died every 19 seconds on Jan. 12—the only time the rate fell below 20 seconds.”
That death rate is even faster than what was experienced by Allied soldiers on D-Day (June 6, 1944), when more than 4,400 soldiers died during the invasion—at a rate of one per 20 seconds extrapolated over the entire 24-hour day.
The article also referenced another tragic day in WWII history to provide a comparative measuring stick. On the “day of infamy” at Pearl Harbor, 2,403 Americans died. That number has been eclipsed 30 times by COVID-19 deaths since Dec. 1, 2020.
But efforts are underway to curb the pandemic, most notably though distribution of vaccines that were developed quickly but are rolling out slowly. While the U.S. has now surpassed the 30 million mark for distributed vaccines, only about 40% of those were distributed as of Jan. 15.
While the pandemic is now the third most deadly event in U.S. history, it’s unlikely to surpass the two that rank above it: While COVID deaths vs World War II losses are about equal at about 400,000, the Civil War, from 1861-865, had 750,000 deaths and the flu pandemic of 1918 and 1919 accumulated 675,000 deaths.
The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington released new projections on Jan. 15, predicting that by May 2021, the COVID-19 death totals could range from 535,000-621,000, depending on vaccine distribution and how many Americans adhere to mask-wearing guidelines. In January, the U.S. suffered through its deadliest month of the entire pandemic.
All of the models do show a flattening of the curve, though the emergence of any new strains of the virus could impact current projections.