Pandemic’s effects mirror Spanish flu outbreak

By David J. Coehrs - [email protected]

Many Fulton County residents consider the societal changes brought on by the novel coronavirus pandemic unprecedented. But the United States was similarly gripped by another deadly illness over 100 years ago.

The H1N1 influenza virus, more familiarly known then as the Spanish flu, wreaked havoc globally between 1918 and 1920. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the virus, which originated in birds, infected about 500 million people – about one-third of the world population at the time. At least 50 million people succumbed to Spanish flu, about 675,000 in the United States.

A unique feature of the flu was its lethal devastation among otherwise healthy people within the 20- to 40-year-old age group.

Though believed by some modern theorists to have started in the Unites States in a Kansas military base, the Spanish flu’s first reported appearances were in New York and Boston, according to newspapers. Because it seemed to spread in Army processing centers preparing American soldiers to travel overseas, the national draft was suspended.

It was tagged the “Spanish flu” due to Spain’s neutral status during World War I, which allowed the country to issue forthright revelations about the influenza within its borders. It was an honesty countries involved in the fighting couldn’t afford.

“They were the ones telling the truth about the outbreak, while others were keeping it close to the chest,” said Scott Lonsdale, operations manager of the Museum of Fulton County. Lonsdale recently pored over 1918 editions of the Fulton County Republican and the Archbold Buckeye to glean facts about the Spanish flu pandemic’s effect locally.

News of the pandemic began popping up in The Republican and the Archbold Buckeye in mid-October of that year. Both newspapers published reports of Spanish flu in southern Ohio. The reports were supported in letters area parents received from their sons stationed in Army camps.

The federal government attached a $10 million appropriation – the equivalent of nearly $171 million today – to an Army funding bill to aid in fighting the flu, and the Red Cross placed ads nationwide imploring nurses to join the cause.

The Red Cross also issued a cautionary list for citizens to follow: colds, no matter how slight, should be treated as influenza; citizens should remain at home; everyone should avoid crowds and regulate their bodily functions; the populace should avoid the breath and secretions of people suffering colds; and those attending to influenza victims should wear masks.

The advisories were repeated on the front page of every issue of The Republican.

And just as during the current novel coronavirus pandemic, not everyone followed the advisories. “People were sneaking in to open their businesses secretly,” Lonsdale said.

After the pandemic entered Fulton County “you start getting notices in the paper that so-and-so is infected, and so-and-so is recovering,” he said. Through articles and smaller snippets placed throughout the newspapers, county residents also learned who had died from the influenza.

And just as now, there was a shutdown of schools. Swanton’s school district was the first to close locally, just prior to Ohio Governor James Cox ordering all communities reporting Spanish flu to shut down their schools.

The Republican and the Archbold Buckeye both kept readers abreast of who and what the Spanish flu was affecting. The Republican noted that college student Maretta Jordan of Wauseon returned home after Wesleyan University closed. It also announced that a Methodist church in Wauseon canceled a Friday evening potluck supper. And it carried an ad for a “snake oil” cure-all medicine.

Fulton County residents in 1918 were also no different in their desire to be free of their pandemic than county residents are now. The Village of Archbold lifted its Spanish flu-related bans in mid-November, only to regret the decision.

“In one week they had more cases than they’d had before,” Lonsdale noted.

While the total numbers of the sick and dead in Fulton County were not found, the toll was reportedly significant. Then, in mid-December, the newspapers abruptly stopped their coverage of the Spanish flu, although it would continue to linger across the world until December of 1920.

“It went from death notices to nothing,” Lonsdale said.

He said, despite the vast differences between the Spanish flu and coronavirus, the similarities between how the country dealt with the pandemics then and now are uncanny. He said the comparisons show that not much changes.

“Health officials were telling people the exact same thing they’re telling us now,” Lonsdale said. “They shut everything down.”

By David J. Coehrs

[email protected]

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.

Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.