With schools closed I found myself wondering if anything like this has happened before for this long. While this school year already had disruptions, this pandemic will have schools closed for at least 10 weeks, and not for the first time in west county history. In 1918, schools were closed for several weeks for what we call the Spanish flu, which apparently started in rural Kansas of all places, spread east all the way around the world and ended up killing over 100 million people worldwide, including more Americans than all 20th century wars combined. Think about that. One pernicious flu bug.
The devastation was far worse in some places than others, and history shows hunkering down clearly had an effect. We can take some comfort in several advantages today that indicate our sheltering in place will be even more effective than in 1918 when serious minds were not sure humanity would even survive.
First, the flu of 1918 evolved its strain so quickly that rates of lethality increased throughout the year. Reminiscent of the Bubonic Plague in the 1300s, the Spanish Flu infected some 500 million worldwide. It used individuals’ strong immune systems to attack themselves so it was most lethal among 20-40 year-olds, many of them parents, leaving thousands of orphans to fend for themselves. Sometimes people went from no symptoms to death in as quickly as six hours.
Second, while air travel today clearly helped spread coronavirus, conditions in 1918 may have even been more perfect for spreading disease. It is shocking to consider the virus' journey. Tiny, flat, rural Haskell County, Kansas, with maybe 3,000 people, was home to Dr. Loring Miner who first reported the symptoms in his patients in February, looking for advice, but his report was not published until April and got little attention even then, far too late for the newly recruited, sniffling soldiers off to Fort Funston to train for the Great War amid the coldest winter on record. To prevent freezing, they crowded into barracks tripling military codes of density and by mid-March dozens were infected with a mild version of the flu. Since this was toward the end of the American flu season, the epidemic appeared to lessen. But that was only the beginning. From Kansas barracks, the virus went to Europe where, via the port at Brest, it found even more perfect conditions to spread; the filthy, muddy, cold trenches infested with rats, rotting, wet feet, and dead bodies in nearby no man's land. As Americans arrived, the virus moved quickly in trenches from west to east indifferent to military friend or foe, all the while mutating to become far more deadly.
From the trenches, the flu spread to German and English civilians and on into Africa and neutral Spain, where eight million deaths were reported (uniquely without war censorship) in May alone. Thus the label "Spanish" flu should be seen as a nod to Spanish free press, unlike what the president is trying to do by calling Covid-19 the "Chinese" virus. Within three months the 1918 flu had come around the world back to the U.S. via Asia, only now killing huge percentages of those infected.
Here is where we can really improve based on our knowledge of history. As sick American troops began to return home in unquarantined ships in September, the virus’ second wave viciously spread from U.S. ports on arrival. Military hospitals were quickly overwhelmed as they tried to treat at quadruple capacity with doctors and nurses dying despite masks and sanitation. Camp Devins in Massachusetts, Camp Grant in Illinois and Camp Hancock in Georgia, became hubs of contagion amid overcrowding and lack of cloth for face masks. Within ten days desperate family members were visiting, trying to bribe doctors for special treatment, and returning home carrying the virus. When Camp Grant was finally quarantined, it was too late. Trains full of the infected went on cross-country rides looking for vacant hospital beds, spreading the disease all along the train lines.
As the weather today turns warm and we get frustrated with sheltering in place, consider what happened next in 1918.
Philadelphia ignored public health warnings during this second wave outbreak. The city was known for steel plants, docks, a railroad hub and overcrowded boarding houses that used beds with the same sheets for workers on different shifts. Its dirty water supply and malnutrition were all perfect for the spreading of disease. But its health board wanted to stop panic so it downplayed the outbreak and declared the peak had passed when it was just getting started. The federal government, focused on raising war bonds and keeping the city’s spirits high, carried on with the Liberty Loan Parade in late September. Within days every hospital bed in the city was full, with hundreds on the floor next to them and in line outside hospitals. A quarter of all patients died, many toe tagged before death was even official.
Contrast Philadelphia's response to San Francisco's, where the city government had apparently learned something from the 1906 earthquake when thousands had died because the city had been unprepared. In September of 1918, its politicians heeded the warning faster than any other major American city. William Hassler, the public health director, quarantined all nearby navy outposts before even one case was recorded. He quickly ordered all schools and gathering places closed, and started a public awareness campaign. Hand washing, sheltering in place and the distribution of 100,000 face masks were put into effect while Philadelphia leaders were denying there was a problem. San Francisco even went too far when police shot people caught violating the face mask order. But no one, no one, died in SF during the second wave compared to 13,000 dead in Philadelphia, leaving thousands of orphans, mostly because that city refused to level with the public or deal with reality until it was too late.
The milder third wave of the Spanish flu in November, when the treaty ended the war, did kill some San Franciscans because they celebrated and ended the quarantine too early, thinking the danger had passed.
Sonoma County's attorney general only suggested people stop rushing to country resorts at the end of October, but he then ordered police to fine people $25 for not wearing a face mask in November after locals largely ignored public health "suggestions." By November 10, as the pandemic wound down The Press Democrat reported a total of 500 cases in Santa Rosa and 175 deaths. But, like today, the real toll must have been far higher than the official count.
While we all have our opinions about how our federal and state governments are handling things today, it is easy to forget that war-time President Woodrow Wilson, focused on WWI logistics, optics and a new European map, traveled to Paris in December and barely said a word all year long about a flu that had killed nearly 700,000 Americans and 3% of the world's population. (He was also busy opposing women's right to vote.)
Another advantage we have today is that the coronavirus itself, while spreading quickly, appears to be evolving slowly, which bodes well for creating an effective vaccine. And it means that flattening the curve not only helps from overwhelming hospitals now but also can buy time for the vaccine. So keep it up, friends, knowing that our sheltering in place is the right thing to do and, if 1918 is any indication, will save a lot of lives.
John Grech is a history and journalism teacher at El Molino High School.