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Lessons from 1918

John Conway - Sullivan County Historian
Posted 4/3/20

Historians and public health officials are revisiting—and reevaluating—the lessons to be learned from the worldwide outbreak of the so-called Spanish Flu in 1918.

There is still much …

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Lessons from 1918

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Historians and public health officials are revisiting—and reevaluating—the lessons to be learned from the worldwide outbreak of the so-called Spanish Flu in 1918.

There is still much discussion of the relative merits of the public health measures taken during the 1918 outbreak and analyzing the data from back then can be confusing. For example, many historians agree that the cities—such as San Francisco—that got a head start on closing schools and businesses and limiting public gatherings fared better than those cities— Philadelphia and Boston—that were slower to react.

But New York City, where Health Commissioner Royal Copeland steadfastly refused to close schools or businesses, had one of the lowest fatality rates among the nation's large cities.

At the time, Copeland explained his decision to keep the schools open by calling them the safest place children could be during the epidemic.“Arguing that children would be safer surrounded by school nurses than at home, New York City Health Commissioner Royal Copeland chose to keep schools open along with other public venues,” Christopher Klein writes for History.com. “In one concession, Copeland mandated staggered opening and closing hours of businesses and factories in order to minimize rush-hour crowds on subway trains.”

Bestselling author John M. Barry, who wrote the 2004 book, “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” thinks that the New York experience can be explained in another way.

“New York City had a pronounced spring wave, which I learned of after I wrote the book,” Barry noted in an email exchange. “That provided natural immunity to much of the populace, accounting for a relatively moderate experience.”

Regardless of the reason, there is no denying that as deadly as the epidemic was, in New York City, at least, things could have been much worse.

“By the time it abated in 1920, the Spanish flu had killed 675,000 Americans and left hundreds of thousands of children orphaned,” Klein writes. “Not only did more Americans die of the Spanish flu than in World War I, more died than in all the wars of the 20th century combined. Globally, the pandemic infected a third of the planet's population and killed an estimated 50 million people.”

Barry says that number might be closer to 100 million.

Although precise numbers are difficult to determine, Sullivan County suffered fatalities from the outbreak. Most of the Sullivan County weeklies, including the large Monticello papers, the Sullivan County Republican and the Republican Watchman, downplayed the impact of the epidemic and although a careful reading of the local papers from the spring and fall of 1918 reveals a suspicious number of deaths attributed to pneumonia—often the fatal finale of the Spanish flu— references to the outbreak itself are few and far between.

One exception seems to be the Sullivan County Record, published by William Lieb in Jeffersonville. In the paper's October 10, 1918 edition, a page-five wrap-up of local boys in the service included a section headed “Deaths from Influenza.”

Four Sullivan County men were listed in that report: Clifford LaBagh of Hurleyville, who died at Camp Jackson in South Carolina, George Wells of Livingston Manor, who died at the Syracuse Recruit Camp, Henry Loerch of Highland Lake, who died at Camp Dix, and Mahlon Dean of Grahamsville, who was at Camp Wadsworth in South Carolina when he was fatally stricken by “influenza followed by pneumonia.”

The Record wasn't as forthcoming on its front page, however. Sprinkled among the stories about the war effort—one announcing a big Liberty Loan Rally scheduled for that week—was a tiny item about the Callicoon school being closed “by order of the town Health Officer, Dr. Mayer, to take precautions against an epidemic of the Spanish Influenza.”

On the front page of its October 17, 1918 edition, the Record ran a story about the town of Cochecton closing its schools as the result of the flu outbreak, as well as a brief under the headline, “Influenza.”

“There are a number of cases of the so-called influenza around here, which are characterized by physicians as the old-fashioned grippe. You are cautioned to keep away from the person who coughs or sneezes. If your child has a cold, keep it from school and thus protect the other children. On page seven of this paper is an article giving “Uncle Sam's Advice on Flu.” Read it.”

In the final analysis, experts looking at the 1918 epidemic for lessons to apply to the current crisis due to COVID-19 agree there are a few.

“The business lesson of the 1918 Spanish flu, if there is one, was that several weeks of public closures didn't do lasting macroeconomic damage,” Rebecca Grant writes for Fox News. “The Spanish flu was a killing machine understood by no one. Yet the stern mitigation and suppression measures in the name of public health were saviors for many in 1918, and they are powerful ammunition again in 2020.”

And there appears to be one measure that is indispensable in these situations: Communicating truthful, accurate information to the public in terms they can fully comprehend.

“The best public health practices are only impactful when widely understood and adopted,” writes David Carlin in a Forbes magazine article entitled, “Lessons From New York's 1918 Flu Outbreak.” “In a crisis, the public health infrastructure, not the law, is what stands between order and chaos…Smart practices can limit risks and save lives.”

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.

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