Fact check: 2009 swine flu spread rapidly, but COVID-19 is more deadly
The claim: The 2009 swine flu pandemic had 56 million more cases in the U.S. than coronavirus and we did nothing.
Over the past several months, social media users have made comparisons between the spreading coronavirus and past disease outbreaks.
Some widely shared Facebook posts have compared the coronavirus to the 2009 H1N1 "swine flu" pandemic, pointing out that the swine flu had 56 million more cases in its first year than the coronavirus has had so far.
The posts, which lack any context about the number of deaths from either virus, question the U.S. response to the coronavirus, given the response to the swine flu based on the apparent disparity in the number of cases.
"How many months were schools closed back then? How long did we wear masks?" an Aug. 2 post from the page Awkward Gym Moments says.
"Only 56 million to go until we equal swine flu in 2009 when we did nothing then," says a July 26 post from the Facebook user David Pike Sr., which had 22,000 shares as of Thursday.
Neither user responded to a USA TODAY request for comment.
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A look back at swine flu
In spring 2009, a new strain of the H1N1 virus that became known as "swine flu" began circulating in the United States. On June 11, the World Health Organization declared the virus a pandemic.
From April 12, 2009, to April 10, 2010, the virus infected more than 60 million people in the U.S., according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
CDC estimates show those infections resulted in about 274,000 hospitalizations and 12,500 deaths, or a fatality rate of 0.02% among cases. The CDC estimates that 151,700 to 575,400 people died from that flu worldwide. The swine flu affected predominately children and young- to middle-aged adults: According to the CDC, 80% of deaths worldwide were in people under 65.
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While the U.S. government in spring 2009 initially recommended schools shut down temporarily if there were suspected cases, it soon changed its recommendation based on the lower severity of the virus. However, hundreds of schools did shut down for a few days in the spring and fall because of the rapid spread of the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a video interview with the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this year that the swine flu was easily transmitted but was not as deadly as some other pandemics.
"That spread very, very well, but the fatality rate was quite low, and that’s the reason why it wasn’t dubbed as a particularly serious pandemic, even though it spread very rapidly," Fauci said.
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How do H1N1, COVID-19 compare?
The death toll for the novel coronavirus is already exponentially higher than that of H1N1, despite having just a fraction of the number of infections in a fraction of the time.
Since the first reported U.S. coronavirus death on Feb. 29, there have been more than 166,000 U.S. deaths – more than 13 times the estimated number of U.S. swine flu deaths in its first year – according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Worldwide, more than 750,000 people have died of COVID-19, significantly more than the highest swine flu death estimate from the CDC.
The CDC estimates the coronavirus has an infection fatality rate of 0.65%. Unlike the swine flu, those primarily at risk for coronavirus are older adults and those with underlying medical conditions.
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, told USA TODAY that because the severity of the coronavirus is quite different from that of the swine flu, the U.S. response needed to be significantly different, too.
Benjamin said the U.S. was able to develop a vaccine relatively quickly to combat the swine flu. The first doses of the swine flu vaccine were given on Oct. 5, just five months and 20 days after the first confirmed U.S. case, and were available in larger quantities in November. But there is no coronavirus vaccine.
Benjamin said therapeutics like Theraflu also aided the U.S. response to the swine flu, while therapeutics for COVID-19 have taken longer to develop.
"We're just now beginning to get some stuff that gives us a little chance to have something that kind of works (and) shortens the hospital stay," he said.
Our ruling: Missing context
It's true that the CDC estimates the 2009 swine flu pandemic infected an estimated 60.8 million people in its first year, versus about 5 million COVID-19 cases confirmed in the U.S. But that comparison lacks important context about the severity of each virus. While the swine flu spread easily, the virus had only a fraction of the fatality rate of COVID-19. A comparison between the two that lacks this context when comparing the nation's response is incomplete. For that reason, we rate this post as MISSING CONTEXT.
Our fact-check sources:
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 11, 2019, 2009 H1N1 pandemic
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 10, Pandemic planning scenarios
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, May 8, 2019, 2009 H1N1 pandemic timeline
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Aug. 4, Frequently asked questions
- Johns Hopkins University, Aug. 13, Coronavirus resource center
- FiveThirtyEight, April 14, Why did the world shut down for COVID-19 but not Ebola, SARS or swine flu?
- NPR, May 5, 2009, U.S. no longer advising swine flu school closures
- NBC News, Oct. 28, 2009, Swine flu closes more than 600 schools in U.S.
- JAMA Network on YouTube, Feb. 6, 2019 novel coronavirus (COVID-19) update
- The New York Times, Aug. 6, A timeline of the coronavirus pandemic
Ian Richardson covers the Iowa Statehouse for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.