17

I was reading Stuart Stevens' interview on Politico, and came across this claim:

more Americans have died from a disease [referring to Covid-19] in the last four months than have ever died of anything in America

Mutatis mutandis, is that true, or just something he threw out on the spur of the moment?

I doubt that "than have ever died of anything in America" is the case, so let's adjust it and confine it to any given 4 month period.

I am scratching my head and trying to come up with other major mass killers:

  • cancer
  • wars
  • "Spanish" flu
  • traffic accidents
  • heart disease
  • guns violence

I don't imagine that any of those killed as many in 4 months (the qualification is mine).

If we allow that qualification, which I believe can be fairly implied, is he correct?

  • And, yes, it's smart to consider look(inf) at the killing efectiveness to add a "per capita" to the check", but let's just stick with what he said (another upvote :-) – Mawg says reinstate Monica Aug 20 at 8:30
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    I just heard that last month Covid-19 was the number three killer of Americans ... here it is nypost.com/2020/08/18/… – GEdgar Aug 20 at 11:30
  • With Covid, unlike cancer, we can either prevent it from killing, or we do nothing and it's a real killer. The USA is somewhere in the middle. – gnasher729 Aug 23 at 10:17
  • In the middle of what? – Mawg says reinstate Monica Aug 23 at 10:21
  • In the middle: It kills lots of people, especially in Texas, Florida, Georgia, because not enough is done. That’s bad. Doing nothing would turn it into a desaster. Anyway, Covid is not the top killer because we do something about it. – gnasher729 Aug 26 at 9:50
25

No, but it's close, ranking between #4 and #6 depending on how you count.

As of August 20, 2020, the US death toll from COVID-19 is roughly 175,000 (source: the New York Times, the CDC, and Worldometers all agree to within about 2%). The death toll started rising in late March, for a duration of slightly over five months, not the four months mentioned in the question.

Compare that to other death tolls (all numbers rounded to the nearest thousand):

Sorted by percent of the population killed, using the population numbers from the nearest census. The relative rankings of some things change, but COVID-19 remains in the #6 spot

  • American Civil War, total military: 1.8%
  • American Civil War, Union military: 1.5%
  • World War II: 0.32%
  • 1918 flu pandemic, second wave: 0.28%
  • Heart disease, five-month average in 2017: 0.082%
  • Cancer, five-month average in 2017: 0.076%
  • COVID-19, March 1-August 21: 0.054%
  • <From here on down, only some causes of death have been listed>
  • American Civil War, Overland Campaign: 0.038%
  • Vietnam War: 0.028%
  • Accidental injuries, five-month average in 2017: 0.022%
  • Influenza, 2017-2018 season: 0.018%

COVID-19 isn't the biggest killer of Americans in history, but it's well up there. Compared to other disease outbreaks, it's ahead of everything except the 1918 flu pandemic. Compared to non-contagious causes of death, it's ahead of everything except heart disease and cancer. And compared to mass-casualty events such as wars, it's ahead of everything except World War II and the American Civil War -- and it's ahead of any five-month slice of either of those wars.

More people dying from COVID-19 won't change the relative ordering, barring a disastrous third wave -- the COVID-19 rate is currently lower than that for cancer or heart disease (so it won't pass them), the COVID-19 total is already ahead of the annual total for accidents (so it can't fall behind it), and the 1918 pandemic is far enough ahead of COVID-19 that it isn't likely to be surpassed, particularly as a percentage of population killed.

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  • Good job stealing the selection! I like it when a later answer proves the SE model works. – fredsbend Aug 22 at 20:12
  • Is your first list in ascending or descending order? It might be better to use ordered/numbered lists instead of bulleted lists since these are rankings. – TylerH Aug 24 at 15:13
  • @TylerH, both lists are in ascending order. – Mark Aug 24 at 20:33
  • @Mark In that case I'd also recommend flipping the order, because usually people want to see the biggest numbers at the top of lists. I'm also confused why you list COVID as ranking "between #4 and #6" (which itself is confusing; do you mean just #5? Or do you mean swapping between #4 and #6? Or do you mean #4, #5, and #6?), but then in both lists you have COVID as #7. – TylerH Aug 24 at 20:35
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    @TylerH, I'm using bulleted lists rather than numbered lists because there are gaps in rankings: ACW, WWII, 1918 flu, heart disease, cancer, and COVID-19 are 1 to 6, but for things that are less deadly than COVID-19, I don't know what numbers to assign. For example, there are a number of flu pandemics that sit between the Vietnam War and WWI for deadliness. – Mark Aug 24 at 21:44
23

According to the CDC

The 1918 flu pandemic virus kills an estimated 195,000 Americans during October alone.

According to the data collected by Johns Hopkins, Covid-19 has killed 173,626 people in the US in total (as of 20 August 2020).*

The Spanish flu therefore killed more Americans in the span of one month (October 1918) than Covid-19 has killed in total, let alone in four months, making the claim false.

*Note: Not necessarily all people killed by Covid-19 in the US were Americans. Similarly, there may have been some Americans that died of Covid-19 outside of the US. However, given the high incidence rate of Covid-19 in the US it is likely that the first group is bigger than the second. Consequently, the number of Americans that died of Covid-19 is likely over-estimated slightly.

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0

As of writing this answer, the official number of Americans killed by COVID is around 200,000 Americans, although it would not be unreasonable to put an order of magnitude error range around that. The US population in 1900 was around 76 million, and almost all of those people are currently dead. It follows that "not COVID" has killed at least 350 times as many Americans as COVID. Even if look at yearly death, "not COVID" killed 2,813,503 in 2017 people per year.

Now, if you don't accept "not COVID" as an atomic category, that raises the question of what constitutes a single "thing". Cancer killed 599k, but you may say "well, there are several different types of cancer". The highest number of deaths comes from lung cancer, which kills 142,670 (that number apparently is for 2019). So if you separate out each type of cancer, and look only at per year, then indeed COVID is more deadly. Heart disease killed 647,457 in 2017, but there are various subcategories, such as stroke and heart attack, that you could divide that into.

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    Age related disease, which some of your examples sometimes are, is its own quandary, since old people seem to die regardless of whether a disease of some sort is noted or not. I think wars and other pandemic events are obvious comparatives ... – fredsbend Aug 22 at 0:20
  • +1 this addresses the question as literally presented, granted the death estimate has been rounded up significantly: this biases the result in favor of the postulate and still proves it wrong. I'm not sure why it is being down voted. – psaxton Aug 27 at 2:57

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