How the coronavirus pandemic compares to other viral outbreaks

12 on 12: Vaccine 101

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, may seem to be nearly crippling the world.

But think about it: This isn’t the first time we’ve seen viral epidemics in recent memory.

So why are the response and discussion so much more dramatic this time?

“It’s different because it’s new,” said Dr. Jeffrey Bratberg, a pharmacy clinical professor at URI who specializes in public health and infectious diseases. “Fear is always the first wave of every epidemic. We’ve had pandemics before [and] we’ve responded to them before.”

When SARS, the Zika virus, swine flu, and others rode a wave through society, they all arrived before social media became what it is today. Information, including moving and still images, sound and text, can move infinitely faster now, as fast as you can click or tap “share” — maybe before you or your social media contact can stop, look, and think.

“People have said to me, rank this from 1 to 10,” Dr. Bratberg said. “I don’t really know, other than: We know that we’re going to have new viruses, [and] we know how to respond to them.”

Eyewitness News dug through the archives of the CDC, looking at the “biggest” viruses in the United States in the last hundred years to see how coronavirus compares up to this point.

The death rate of coronavirus is about 3 percent so far.

In 2002, with the outbreak of SARS, there was a 10 percent death rate. There were 8,400 cases worldwide and just eight lab-confirmed cases in the entire United States.

In 2016, the Zika virus sent pregnant women into a frenzy to avoid mosquito bites. More than 5,700 Zika cases have been reported in the continental United States since along with more than 3,000 birth defects connected to the virus.

We’ve also gotten through four types of significant flu.

The Spanish flu in 1918 caused the deadliest pandemic of the twentieth century, according to the CDC. Five hundred million people worldwide were affected, and 675,000 people died in America.

Nearly 40 years later, around 1956, the Asian flu killed about a million people worldwide and 116,000 in the U.S.

Infection and death rate numbers were similar when the Hong Kong flu surfaced in 1968.

Most recently, with the swine flu in 2009, the CDC estimates nearly 61 million Americans were affected and more than 12,000 died.

But by 2010, the World Health Organization declared an end to the swine flu global pandemic, and slowly, but surely, life returned to normal.

“I’m sure after pandemic flu, you have a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere, and maybe that went away,” Dr. Bratberg added.

And, Dr. Bratberg said, societal disruptions are temporary — until researchers have a better understanding of the virus.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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