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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Putting COVID-19 deaths in context

Kids line up to get their polio vaccines

Kids line up to get their polio vaccines at a school in Huntington on April 27, 1954. Most polio victims were children. Credit: Newsday/Walter del Toro

Last week, the United States passed a grim milestone when COVID-19 had officially killed one in every 500 Americans — a toll now just about to pass 680,000.

But landmark numbers don’t mean much without context.

You can say, "I played 18 today and got three holes-in-one," but if we don’t know you were playing miniature golf, holes-in-one are common and you cheat, we'll badly misunderstand the importance of the feat.

With COVID, the scads of numbers skew and inform perceptions. The most visceral might be that one in every 35 Americans age 85 or older is dead of COVID, and one out of 150 age 65 to 84. That’s a shocking loss of memory and love, a heartbreaking theft of parents and grandparents.

Then there are the COVID statistics teaching us about more than the pandemic.

One in every 240 Native Americans has died of COVID, compared with one in 390 Hispanics, one in 480 Blacks … and one in 1,300 whites.

That clearly affects perceptions of the seriousness of the pandemic. Communities facing hugely different risks are unlikely to see those risks the same way.

But how does the COVID death rate compare with other big fatality events?

And how does politicization affect perception?

"COVID is just like the flu!"

"You mean the Spanish Flu of 1918 that killed 50 million worldwide?"

"NO! Like the flu that made me miss two days of work!"

COVID’s nearly 680,000 fatalities make it our most deadly occurrence, but not by percentage.

During the Civil War, 655,000 soldiers died. That’s one of every 50 of the 32 million population then.

So by ratio, the Civil War was 10 times as deadly as COVID thus far. But it also stole more life, as the soldiers’ average age was 26.

The Spanish Flu killed 675,000 Americans, but in a nation of 106 million, making it three times as deadly by percentage. The nation’s response then seems similar to what we see today.

But the numbers are just one factor in how much or little we react to death and fear. The bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995 killed just 168 people, but altered this country dramatically.

The Korean War, with 36,000 American fatalities, is a speed bump in our national consciousness. But a few years later, Vietnam’s 58,220 fatalities remade the nation in a way that still resonates.

And then there is polio, and the way the nation’s response to it compares with our reactions to COVID. In 1952, one of the worst years of our last big polio outbreak, the disease killed 3,145 Americans. That’s not necessarily enough deaths to warrant national hysteria, but most of polio’s victims were children. And because thousands who did not die were partially or fully paralyzed, with some ending up in "iron lungs," this visible reality terrified American parents.

We’ll do more to save 8-year-olds and 18-year-olds than 85-year-olds. We’ll react more strongly to the deaths of people like us and our loved ones than those we see as different.

But in the end, the ratio of Americans dying needed to make us take a disease seriously is just one in 335 million, as long as that one is a loved one.

We see that proved every day now, when another family of a COVID victim who did not get vaccinated proclaims, through tears, that it really is to be taken seriously.

Columnist Lane Filler's opinions are his own.