In the face of a pandemic caused by a new and deadly virus, states and local governments enact social-distancing measures, bans on crowds, closure orders, and mask mandates in an effort to flatten the curve and prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed with critically infected people. Initially, people are fairly compliant with the order, but, as the days of restriction turn into weeks, then months, compliance wanes. Theater owners complain about financial losses. Clergy bemoan church closures. People argue whether children are safer in classrooms or at home, and many rebel at having to wear face masks in public, complaining that the government has no right to infringe on their civil liberties. Sound familiar?
But this is not about the 2020-21 coronavirus pandemic; these are descriptions of the US response to the deadly Spanish flu pandemic between 1918 and 1920. In many ways our current pandemic mirrors the one that occurred a century ago, and that is presciently described in the book, The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry. Like CoV-2, the H1N1 “Spanish” flu killed less than 1% of the people it infected, but during a third wave of infection with a more virulent strain, that flu killed more people around the world in just 24 weeks than were killed in the 10 years of WWI and WWII combined! In remote areas with little access to health care, the flu wiped out entire villages.
Like COVID-19, the Spanish flu pandemic hit hard and fast, going from a handful of reported cases in a few cities to a nationwide outbreak within a few weeks, then with increased mobility due to WWI, it quickly spread around the world, from America to Europe and back. Many communities, responding to the ebbs and flows of the epidemic waves, issued several rounds of closure in an attempt to keep the disease in check. These social-distancing orders worked to reduce cases and deaths. However, just as today, they often proved difficult to maintain. By the late autumn of 1918, just weeks after wide-spread social-distancing orders went into effect, the pandemic seemed to be coming to an end as the number of new infections declined. People clamored to return to their normal lives. Businesses pressed officials to be allowed to reopen. Believing the pandemic was waning, some state and local authorities began rescinding public health edicts. Sound familiar?
Americans hurried to return to their pre-pandemic routines. In some cities, they packed into movie theaters and dance halls, crowded into stores and shops, and gathered with friends and family for holidays and celebrations. Meanwhile, officials warned the nation that cases and deaths likely would continue for months to come, but the warnings fell on increasingly deaf ears, as people enjoyed a return to normalcy. The nation carried on, inured to the toll the pandemic was taking. But as health officials warned, the pandemic wore on, stretching into a third deadly wave that lasted through the spring of 1919, with a fourth wave hitting in the winter of 1920. Some blamed those world-wide resurgences on careless Americans.
The different responses and experiences of two large American cities are noteworthy here. In Denver, local business interests lobbied heavily to get rid of the quarantine measures that had shut down schools, churches, libraries, pool halls, businesses, and theaters. The city capitulated. The city opened up and was hammered by the deadly third wave of the flu. On Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, residents poured out of their homes to celebrate the end of World War I. A few days later, many were dead, victims of the pandemic flu. Two weeks later, a headline in the Denver Post captured the devastation: “All Flu Records Smashed in Denver in Last 24 Hours.” An editorial in the Denver Monthly Magazine said, “For some reason, even the most enlightened citizens will not take the influenza epidemic seriously. They know that it is the most widespread epidemic that has ever visited America. They know the disease is a deadly menace and snuffs out life almost before the victim realizes he is ill. Yet when health officers try to impress upon people the necessity of following essential rules and regulations, the average citizen simply refuses to heed these admonitions.”
In contrast to Denver, St. Louis enacted and maintained strong social distancing measures, including in-home quarantines for infected people. They experienced a fraction of the deaths that Denver saw. The quarantine measures worked there.
The similarities in our responses to the 1919-20 flu and 2020-? coronavirus pandemics are noteworthy. But, there is one big, hopefully defining difference between the two pandemics that might make the outcomes quite different. Vaccines. There were no flu vaccines to rescue the world from the ravages of the Spanish flu. In fact, the influenza virus would not even be discovered for another 15 years, and a vaccine was not available until 1945. For the first 12 or so months of the current coronavirus pandemic, we were in the same boat—we faced a novel virus with no vaccine or effective medicine. When there is no available medical response to a pathogen, we must rely on protective public health measures to provide a buffer against the pathogen while we learn how to respond to it.
Today, we have significant advantages with a much better understanding of virology and epidemiology then we did in 1918. We know that both social distancing and masking work to help save lives. Most critically, we now have multiple safe and effective anti-CoV-2 vaccines that are being deployed, with the pace of vaccinations increasingly weekly.
Still, the deadly third wave of influenza shows what can happen when people prematurely relax their guard against viruses that can mutate and become more deadly. That is why we must remain vigilant while the coronavirus vaccines roll out. We are still learning about this virus and are only beginning to learn about the variants spawned by the virus. We still need a public health buffer from the virus to keep us safe until we better understand its full capabilities and can vaccinate more people.
Be smart. Stay safe. Get the vaccine.