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1918 flu also affected Charlottesville-area churches, businesses

It’s been more than 100 years since the last worldwide pandemic, and the world’s reaction to the spread of COVID-19 bears many similarities.

The closest comparison to such a pandemic occurred about a century ago when an influenza outbreak spread across the world, killing millions. The so-called Spanish flu, expanding as World War I neared its end, led governments around the world to take measures to curb the disease’s spread.

“None of us dealt with this the last time we dealt with this as a world in 1918,” Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker said in a recent virtual town hall. “This is a new experience. We’re going to be making decisions as we go.”

American life was shut down then as now, although looking through the lens of modern times, it may not feel as stark and sudden as the current situation. Sports were in their infancy, prohibition meant no bars and retail shopping wasn’t an integral part of life. However, Christian McMillen, a University of Virginia history professor, noted that people “didn’t know what they didn’t know.”

“Within their own context, they certainly felt the restrictions placed on them,” McMillen said.

Resistance to the calls for social distancing and quarantines is nothing new either, McMillen said, noting that people in England and Italy were unhappy with orders not to hold Catholic Mass during previous cholera pandemics.

“Three hundred or 400 years ago, people were upset as they are now,” he said. “I think reactions across time have been broadly similar.”

Although there are some differences, the similarities in government response and the burden on the health care system from coronavirus and the Spanish flu bear striking resemblance.

The Spanish flu first appeared in the United States in Kansas in March 1918 and came in several waves, but the biggest impact was in the fall.

In October 1918 alone, 195,000 Americans died, according to Lawrence Sondhaus, director of the Institute for the Study of War and Diplomacy at the University of Indianapolis. By the time the pandemic ran its course, an estimated 28% of Americans and 20% of the world population had been infected. Many victims were between the ages of 20 and 40.

On Oct. 4, 1918, The Daily Progress ran an editorial calling the flu pandemic a “direct infliction of the monstrous war.” U.S. soldiers spread it as they moved between bases and then transferred it as they went overseas to fight in Europe.

McMillen said that pandemics are typically spread through trade and travel. They have grown increasingly widespread over time as technology has improved.

McMillen noted that the plague spread through trade routes and travel and, although it took longer to become widespread than has the coronavirus, “the mechanisms are the exact same.”

“I think the speed of travel perhaps is the only thing that’s changed, which means response times have to be quicker, as well,” he said.

The first case of coronavirus in the U.S. was a Washington state man who had visited Wuhan, China.

{span}The coronavirus has killed more than 82,000 worldwide as of Wednesday, according to the CDC. In the United States, more than 12,000 people have died, with at least 75 of those in Virginia.{/span}

The flu pandemic killed more than 50 million people worldwide. In the United States, 675,000 people died, with 16,000 of those in Virginia.

Overall, an estimated 2,100 residents in Charlottesville and Albemarle County caught influenza, with 227 dying, according to death certificates studied by Encyclopedia Virginia. The project notes that those in rural areas of the county died without a doctor’s care and were buried at home, so the numbers could be higher.

The first notice of a local death from the flu appeared on the front page of The Daily Progress on Sept. 30, 1918. Cecil Monds, a student at Fork Union Military Academy, succumbed to the pneumonia that accompanied the virus that scientists now believe may have been a strain of the H1N1 virus.

The city was helped by the medical school at UVa, according to Encyclopedia Virginia, but nothing was easy. The Progress reported in October 1918 that the University Hospital was so crowded that “in order to make room for the students, many outside patients are being turned down.”

In a move that is all-too-familiar to what is happening now, on Oct. 5, 1918, Charlottesville Mayor E.G. Haden ordered all schools, churches and public places closed for nine days, just one day after the start of the Albemarle County Fair.

“Sunday promises to be a quiet day in Charlottesville as the churches will be closed and the autos idle,” one story in The Progress said.

That same day, The Progress ran stories about two local residents getting sick.

McMillen said that bans on public gatherings during pandemics are a long-established response dating as far back as the bubonic plague in Europe during the 1340s. Similar measures were taken with cholera outbreaks throughout the 1800s.

McMillen said the public health responses in the U.S. have been piecemeal and on different timelines, a consistency across history.

“Just like now, during 1918, the response was very local; it wasn’t a national response,” he said. “The U.S. government has always left these matters to the different states as they see fit.”

In 1918, movie houses and pool rooms were shut down, milk delivery was suspended and a plea went out from the telephone company to limit phone use as only three of the 16 operators were well enough to come to work.

Deaths were reported nearly every day, affecting all ages and dotting The Progress front page among the overpowering articles on the war and the numerous pleas for bond purchases in the Liberty Loan drive. One man, Grover Clements of Ivy, died a month before he was supposed to marry his fiance, Mary Carrie Easton.

Labor shortages at the gas plants led to service disruptions. The Red Cross was making face masks to fill an “immediate need,” mirroring a shortage of personal protective equipment that is present today.

The newspaper also suffered and, under the headline “Progress Hit Hard,” announced on Oct. 7, 1918, that the pressman and page designers were sick. Within two days, so many carriers were sick that The Progress was just delivering papers to pharmacies and grocery stories for people to pick up.

The flu was reported with the headline “Epidemic Is Widespread.” Jury trials were suspended, district nurses made calls for volunteers and a fourth-year UVa student died.

Businesses were faced with restrictions as the mayor ordered ice cream shops and places selling soft drinks to no longer use glass cups, but instead use paper.

One editorial described the closing order’s effect on business, saying they “have felt a sharp decline in business as never before in a generation.”

However, the editorial notes that everyone needed to bear the burden of the order, noting that Philadelphia saw a resurgence in cases after prematurely lifting its order.

“[I]t is too serious a matter to think of trying the experiment of opening up prematurely just now,” the editorial said. “We have tried to din it into the heads of our good and progressive fellow citizens … just how we stand in the matter of public health and hygiene arrangements.”

The public is in a better situation now to learn about COVID-19’s impact and severity than in 1918; during World War I, the U.S. government censored information about the pandemic in an effort to avoid harming morale.

In fact, the name Spanish flu was adopted because Spain was neutral in World War I and didn’t censor reporting about the pandemic, so more reports came from that country.

To take lessons from historical pandemics, McMillen urged leaders to rely on scientific experts.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good to spread falsehoods,” he said. “People need to listen, and our leadership needs to let the people who actually know what they’re doing when it comes to infectious diseases do their job.”

Rice University historian Douglas Brinkley told USA Today that one of the likely parallels to the 1918 pandemic will be a renewed appreciation in science and a rekindled admiration for doctors.

The Progress told residents to pay attention to orders and advice from medical professionals during the flu pandemic, writing that, “No Man or woman should allow this warning to pass unheeded.”

Not everything during the 1918 pandemic reflects the current environment. Sports leagues in their infancy continued to play; the University of North Carolina announced that it hoped to face UVa in football by Thanksgiving Day.

Weddings continued in 1918, unlike the current pandemic where many have been postponed.

By Nov. 3, 1918, Haden lifted the order closing most public places in Charlottesville to the joy of many.

“The public will rejoice to learn of the modification of the closing order … and can enjoy its restored liberty as to amusement tomorrow and religious worship in the churches on Sunday,” one story said.

McMillen said that governments need to continuously provide information, as situations rapidly evolve.

“It’s not that people need to come up with one answer and stick to it; it’s always providing the public the most accurate information,” he said. “It’s informing the public with as much honesty and as much information that is available and not willfully diminishing the importance of the threat.”


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