Local reaction to COVID-19 echoes events of Spanish Flu epidemic

Nurses in Boston hospitals were equipped with masks to fight influenza in the
spring of 1919. (National Archives)

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

Schools were closed. Community events were postponed. Folks stocked up on essential items, making them next to impossible to find in stores. Statistics tracking the number of the sick and dead were updated on a daily basis. Businesses ran advertisements urging the public to stay home if they felt sick and to generally limit contact with others. Fears of the healthcare system becoming overwhelmed bubbled under the surface as the Red Cross aggressively recruited volunteers.

What we are living through today in the early stages of the COVID-19 epidemic might feel unprecedented, but local newspapers from the fall and winter of 1918 and the early months of 1919 tell a story that probably sounds pretty familiar to those in our region facing a world of uncertainty in the age of the coronavirus.

Influenza patients crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. Fears of overwhelming the medical system were as prevalent then as they are now. (National Museum of Health)

Joe Spiker, head docent at the Chester Inn Museum in Jonesborough, has spent a lot of time in recent weeks pouring over editions of local newspapers from the influenza outbreak of 1918-19. While he says there are differences between the Spanish Flu and COVID-19, our response isn’t that different than it was a century ago.

“Society is wired the same way,” Spiker said. “We’re all doing sort of the same things in different ways.

“In 1918, they still went through the same process. They were concerned. They were looking for news. Companies were gearing their products towards the specific outbreak. People were stocking up on items and there were reports of a product like Vicks VapoRub not being available because drug stores had sold out of it.”

One major difference between 1918 and 2020 is the ability to remain connected even when we’re physically separated. For example, there is no way Spiker could have done research from home early in the 20th Century. But in 2020, he is able to tap into the Internet and gain some valuable insight into daily life in our region during those tense days between September 1918 and the spring of 1919. Local newspapers offer Spiker a unique snapshot into daily life.

A telephone operator wears protective gauze during the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918. Many Americans are wearing masks again during the COVID-19 outbreak. (National Archives)

After a summer lull, cases of the Spanish Flu began to spike in September of 1918. Before it was all over, the outbreak would claim the lives of between 500,000 and 850,000 Americans.

“The flu really hit by mid-late September,” he said. “By early October, it was everywhere.”

The Red Cross started recruiting volunteers to help administer medical care near the end of September. The medical system was already taxed by World War I, and the pandemic only increased the need for medical workers. Red Cross advertisements popped up in local papers and continued to run through the end of the year.

By the beginning of October, schools started closing down and some community events were pushed to the spring as social distancing measures took effect. In this respect, Spiker’s research indicates an interesting difference between the response in 1918 and the response today. School closings were handled on a school-by-school basis, and some communities held events while others postponed.

“In November, there was an article about a school that had been closed for two weeks, but there was another school that was open,” he said. “It wasn’t uniform.”

Statistics tracking active cases of COVID-19 have become a routine part of our daily life. In late 1918, most every edition of the newspaper ran the latest influenza data near the top of the front page, even if there weren’t many cases in the town the paper was distributed in. Statistics from locales outside the region – like Boone, N.C. – were included as well to help people track the spread of the flu.

If you’re already sick of hearing about COVID-19, you’d probably be in good company if you could somehow travel back to 1918. By the end of the year, Spiker said coverage of the Spanish Flu was unavoidable.

“It really touched everything,” he said. “It would pop up all over the place in the newspapers.”

The biggest takeaway from the Spanish Flu outbreak , however, is that nothing lasts forever. Following the second wave during the winter of 1918, the virus showed signs of weakening in the spring of 1919 before fading altogether, allowing a weary world to recover and rebuild.


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