The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic swept the globe and killed 14 million people, including 675,000 in the United States alone. As in the case of the current pandemic of novel coronavirus, authorities initially suppressed news of its spread and attempted to minimize its lethal potential, which only exacerbated the final devastation caused by the disease.

Less than three months into awareness of the coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan Province in China, the World Health Organization says cases worldwide now have topped 120,000 and the death toll has topped 4,000. More than 120 countries are so far affected.

Italy went from three confirmed cases of the virus, also known as COVID-19, in mid-February to more than 10,000 cases today, with that country’s death toll now over 600. Italian President Sergio Mattarella has ordered the entire country under lockdown. All large gatherings have been canceled and many Italians have been ordered to “self-isolate.”

A Wall Street Journal reporter based in Milan said he can still go to the office and even has taken his children to the park, but always maintaining “social distancing.”

The disease, falsely characterized by some right-wing media as “just another type of flu,” and by Rush Limbaugh as “the common cold,” has been spreading exponentially in the United States and elsewhere. President Trump himself began by downplaying the threat of coronavirus, openly worrying more about its impact on the economy than what it represented as a public health crisis.

Trump put Vice President Mike Pence in charge of coordinating the U.S. response and of communicating updates and warnings to the public. Some Democratic governors, such as Washington State’s Jay Inslee, have given Pence good marks in his role, all the while lamenting Trump’s “happy talk” and minimizing statements.

U.S. cases at this writing have occurred in 49 states and have topped 4,000, with close to 70 deaths reported to date, most in the state of Washington, but a sprinkling in New York, Florida, California and elsewhere. As of Monday morning, West Virginia had yet to report its first case.

German Prime Minister Angela Merkel has said she fears up to 70% of her fellow countrymen may, sooner or later, come down with coronavirus.

If even one half of U.S. citizens caught a case of the disease, we would have 150 million affected. A high percentage of those might be “asymptomatic,” that is, they would be carrying the germ but manifesting no symptoms and seemingly staying healthy. The disease is most dangerous for people in their 60s and older and those with pre-existing conditions such as respiratory problems, heart trouble and diabetes.

The problem with asymptomatics is that they can still convey the coronavirus to others at home, school, work or the store, and those others may indeed get sick, need hospitalization with a respirator, or even die. That is why so many areas have chosen to close schools and colleges, even though young people are the most resistant to becoming ill with the virus.

And what might be our U.S. death toll if half the country came down with coronavirus? Early estimates of fatality rate per those carrying the virus range from 1% up to close to 3%. At 1% fatalities, the United States would see 1.5 million deaths, or about two and a half times the number who perished from the 1918 Spanish flu. A frightening prospect.

John Patrick Grace formerly covered healthcare for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He is now a book editor based in Huntington and teaches the Life Writing Class.

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