But that was back when there were only a couple thousand confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the United States and only about 40 people had died of covid-19, the disease the virus causes. Since then, the comparison has gotten substantially worse.
To compare the virus to H1N1 now, with more than 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of confirmed infections in the United States, is dubious. To further call the Obama administration’s response a “debacle,” as Trump did in a tweet Tuesday? It’s a descriptor Trump might want to avoid.
Trump was using the comparison to disparage an inspector general’s report that documented the extent to which hospitals are unprepared for the current outbreak.
Setting aside the various problems with Trump’s personal disparagement of the inspector general, there are multiple issues with the specific comparison to the H1N1 outbreak.
The first is that Trump is using — and misstating — an estimate of the number of deaths calculated after the first year of the outbreak by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That estimate put the number of U.S. deaths from the flu over the first year at 12,469, the most likely value from a range extending from just below 9,000 to 18,000 deaths.
Trump has in the past compared that figure with the number of deaths on record from the coronavirus. Those figures are tallies of what health officials have recorded on a daily basis and don’t include estimates aimed at capturing underreporting of covid-19-related deaths. The numbers we see and discuss counting how many people have been infected or have died of the coronavirus are necessarily inaccurate, which is why authorities later make estimates that better capture the virus’s toll.
In 2009, there was the same murkiness as the H1N1 virus spread. The contemporaneous counts of infections and deaths recorded over the course of that year, then, offer a better point of comparison with where we are now. They are also necessarily smaller than the eventual 12,000-plus estimate.
Looking at the number of reported coronavirus infections in mid-March and the number of confirmed H1N1 infections during the same relative period — that is, the number that was being counted in the same way that coronavirus infections are currently being counted — the increase in cases seen with both viruses was about the same at first.
The H1N1 strain that year, though, was a much less contagious and much less deadly virus. Even within the first three weeks after the 60th infection from each virus was confirmed, the relative deadliness of the coronavirus was obvious.
That takes us only to about mid-March. Since then, the number of coronavirus infections and deaths has soared past where the H1N1 outbreak was in the same period.
That graph takes us through Tuesday. As of writing, Johns Hopkins University’s estimate of the number of U.S. deaths from covid-19 is now above 17,000 — north of Trump’s apparent baseline for a “debacle” and well over the after-the-fact H1N1 estimate compiled by the CDC. An estimate that, again, covered the first year.
It’s important to reiterate that this is in large part a function of the differences between the viruses. The novel coronavirus is simply much deadlier. But that’s a good reason for Trump not to compare the two: the picture will likely only grow worse.
Even in this apples-to-oranges comparison, the H1N1 pandemic looks like something less than a debacle. If we convert everything to apples, comparing estimates of the eventual toll from the coronavirus to the CDC estimates of what happened with H1N1, the difference is even starker.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the coronavirus will lead to 521,000 hospital admissions and 82,000 deaths, compared with 274,000 H1N1 hospitalizations and 12,000 deaths.
Oh, and the IHME estimate is only though Aug. 1. So it’s a six-month period that overlaps only partially with the tail end of the flu season, during which it’s expected that the coronavirus will return.
How many deaths will the coronavirus ultimately cause? Well, there’s this estimate, released at the end of last month, which shows a possible range of 100,000 to 240,000 deaths. That’s between eight and 19 times as many deaths as were seen from H1N1 during the first year it was spreading globally.
The graph above, and its estimated death toll, was presented by one Donald John Trump during a briefing in the White House.
Even if Trump’s tweeted figure for the toll of the H1N1 pandemic was correct, which it wasn’t, it’s not a comparison in which he fares particularly well.