The Spanish Flu and Covid-19
The Logan County Experience

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[April 23, 2020]   Introduction

About a week ago, LDN decided it would be good to take a look at a historical pandemic that had a devastating impact on the world. We wondered how our community was impacted by the Spanish Flu that took the lives of many, many people worldwide during a timeline that began in 1918 and concluded in 1920.

We reached out to local historian, author, and retired educator Bill Donath. We asked him if he had some information that we could share about the Spanish Flu and how it impacted Logan County.

As it turns out, Donath has spent the last five years researching and writing on that very topic. He put together a 261-page book about the Spanish Flu and the lives it impacted locally. Donath has completed his book and it had been sent off to the printer just prior to the outbreak of corona virus in the United States.

And, irony on irony, the printing of that book has been suspended because of our current situation, the first world pandemic since Spanish Flu. However, Donath was kind enough to write up a synopsis of the book and provide it to us to assist in our quest.

That synopsis is being published as presented by Donath.

About the Spanish Flu

The Spanish Flu began in 1918 and was officially considered to be over in 1920. The flu was highly contagious and deadly. According to information on the CDC website, the flu infected approximately 500 million people worldwide – one third of the world population. In the United States 50 million people were infected and there was an estimated 675,000 deaths in our country.

In Logan County, there were at least 3,100 confirmed cases and an estimated 436 deaths.

The Spanish Flu was an H1N1 type flu. That may sound familiar to many today because though we don’t say “Spanish Flu” any longer, we do hear H1N1 every year, and it is one strain that is included in flu vaccines.

It is not known exactly where the Spanish Flu originated, but it is known that it came into the United States with members of the military who had been in Europe in 1918.

The Spanish Flu was reported to have the worst impact on younger people, those in their 20s and 30s, and even very young children.

About Covid-19

There are two words associated with this 2020 pandemic – Covid-19 and coronavirus. Some wonder which is the most correct, and why both words are being thrown out there so often.

Coronavirus (all one word according to the CDC) is the name of a strain of viruses that have been in existence for a while. Covid-19 is the name of the particular strain the world is dealing with at the moment.

There are other coronavirus strains that we are familiar with, such as SARS and MERS.

The name Covid-19 contains the number 19 because technically the disease started in 2019 in China. It did not become widely known that the disease existed until early 2020.

The source of the virus is being attributed to animals, and more specifically open air markets in China.

The disease can be carried by many animals including camels, cattle, cats, and bats. The CDC does not spell out specifically how that connects to open air markets, but it is known that the disease was first spread from an open air market with live animals and seafood for sale, in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.

Covid-19 is currently reported to be impacting people in their older years or with ongoing health issues. Reports of deaths from Covid-19 show that mortality rates are highest among those who are age 75 and above, but also has infected and taken the life of much younger people on a smaller scale.

Similarities in the two pandemics

The two pandemics do share some similarities.

Both have proven to be deadly and highly contagious.

Both have their deadliest impact on the respiratory systems.

In the days of the Spanish Flu, one of the largest controversies associated with the disease was the necessity of quarantine and its effectiveness in battling the spread of the influenza.

Today, one of the biggest controversies with Covid-19 is that of the shelter in place. As time progresses, more and more people are becoming impatient with the situation and are choosing to protest the orders to stay at home.

Both Spanish Flu and now Covid-19 negatively impacted the economy.

In 1918, local governments implemented what was called non-pharmaceutical interventions and that included the closure of businesses as part of controlling human interactions. While that proved to be a devastating blow for many businesses at the moment, the government reported that after the virus was annihilated, the economy bounced back. The country enjoyed prosperity until the Great Depression of 1929.

Today, many government officials from the President of the United States right down to the Lincoln City Treasurer are predicting that we will see a similar bounce back once this disease is under control.

The differences between the two pandemics

From a journalistic viewpoint, the biggest difference in the two pandemics is the transmission of information.

Donath writes in his synopsis that it was difficult to determine the accuracy of the Logan County death counts during the Spanish Flu because there was a lack of records. He gleaned most of his information from newspaper accounts, death records, and the Lincoln City Health Department and notes that information from outside the city was harder to find. At that time there was NO county health department, and no central location for collecting data.

We know that today the Logan County Department of Public Health is playing a big part in tracking with Covid-19 through our community. The dashboard that they have available online is updated each day and is accessible to anyone. In addition, the LCDPH is partnering with Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital to put out to local press offices a daily report of the Covid tests being performed, their results and the number of people infected and if any are hospitalized. To date the reports have registered great big goose eggs in the category of local lives lost.

Today we watch our Governor and our President on television as they offer up daily reports. There was no television in 1918. The television didn’t come to be until 1927. However, there was radio, so people could stay informed that way as well as by newspaper.

However, the World War had come to an end in 1918, and President Woodrow Wilson was reported to be much more interested in dealing with war’s ending than the Spanish Flu. Though it was later announced that the President himself contracted the flu and survived it, he refused to acknowledge it as a serious problem in the United States.

In March 2020, an article published in The News Republic - How America’s Newspapers Covered Up a Pandemic - The terrifying, censored coverage of the 1918 Spanish flu by Walter Shapiro summed up the Presidential reaction to the disease.

“In October 1918 alone, 195,000 Americans died from the virus. Yet President Woodrow Wilson, obsessed with a war in Europe that would end on November 11, made no public references to the disease. And states received no assistance from Washington, not even from the Food and Drug Administration.”

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In stark contrast, our federal government and our state government have both been highly visible during the Covid-19 Pandemic. Regardless of whether you support our Republican President Donald Trump or our Democrat Governor J.B. Pritzker, no one should be able to deny that both of those leaders have been highly engaged in the battle against this disease and have offered leadership to the best of their ability.

Looking at the last sentence of that March 2020 article – states received no assistance from Washington, D.C., not even from the Food and Drug Administration.

In stark contrast, the public has heard daily of the financial assistance that is going to the states. There is a multitude of information being provided by the CDC on how to protect ourselves, and the federal government has deployed FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers to assist states with immediate medical facility needs and other tools that will be needed to defeat this illness.

While many of us may be wondering how the government can afford to do what it is doing, and when and how the ‘pay back’ will come about, there is no denying that the government has thrown a lot of money at this problem. With multiple programs to help working families who are now sheltering in place and small businesses that have had to shutter their doors for the health and safety of their community, the government is trying to keep everyone going through this tough time.

During the Spanish Flu there was no medical recourse for fighting the disease. There were no medications that could be administered.

From the CDC website: “With no vaccine to protect against influenza infection and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections that can be associated with influenza infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to non-pharmaceutical interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limitations of public gatherings, which were applied unevenly.”

Science and technology over the last 100 years has advanced substantially. While there is not a vaccine for Covid-19 yet, scientists are rushing to create one. Research doctors are experimenting with drugs that have been used to treat other illnesses with similar symptoms to see if they have an impact on those infected. And, while the results are mixed, they keep trying, keep searching, and are hopeful that they will be able to give us something useful in the near future. There have been a few reported cases of a drug that is commonly used for Malaria that has had a positive effect on some patients.

The President’s task force, led by Vice-President Pence is well aware that Covid-19 is not going to go away forever, and on the short list of work to accomplish is to develop a vaccine that will protect our populations in the future. That work is ongoing, and we’ve been assured that the work will not stop until the vaccine is ready to be administered to everyone.

There was also a shortage of doctors in 1918 compared to the number of patients. In his book, Donath notes that there was a doctor – a doctor – in many of our small town communities. He also noted that the doctors were not immune to the disease and two, Dr. Paine of New Holland and Dr. Brock of Atlanta died of the flu. In addition, he noted that about half of the doctors in the county were called to the army camps.

In the book, Donath quotes a paragraph quoted by Phil Bertoni in 2018 and written by Harry Van Hook:

"Hit hard in Mt. Pulaski, too - Harry Van Hook writes in his book, 'Three Miles From Salt Creek', that his dad, Dr. Forrest Van Hook, was absent from his house for days going about the countryside treating the sick and dying. Harry writes that his dad told him he'd go into a farm house and most or all of the family would be sick in bed, with the dead children on the kitchen floor."

Today, Logan County has access to a number of doctors and specialists. While we perhaps still don’t have all the doctors we could use for the population of the county, the resources are much greater than they were in 1918.

We do see a shortage in nurses and CNA’s not just in Logan County, but all around the country. However those that we do have are very well educated, with plenty of experience and compassion for the patients they care for.

But looking back at 1918, the shortage of doctors, the lack of governmental leadership, and the “uneven” application of non-pharmaceutical interventions such as quarantines and shelter in place rules were factors that kept the disease rolling along for two years. Those factors were also all intertwined. With not enough doctors, family members attempted to take care of each other. Donath’s book offers accounts of people who traveled to be with a sick person in the family, only to come home with the influenza themselves.

With no assistance from the government, businesses had a harder time keeping their doors closed, and would have to try to re-open, often times too soon.

Donath wrote that there were three occasions in 1918 alone when quarantines and shelter in place appeared to be working, so people would get back to their normal routines, only to have the influenza come back.

This is part of the history of the Spanish Flu that our federal and state leaders are taking to heart. We can’t go back to normal too soon. That is the reasoning behind the three phases on the return to normalcy.

We are being asked to recognize that we can’t go back to the way we were on March 1st. We have been told we can’t jump back into society with both feet and full steam ahead.

It’s a hard pill to swallow. Our local small businesses need to get back to work, but even this week our Governor has said that while the original Stay at Home order was scheduled to be lifted the end of April, he is debating whether or not that should happen.

It may be hard for Logan County to understand, because we have proven to be the exception not the rule in the number of daily cases. But, perhaps we need to consider that the reason we are the exception and not the rule is because our citizens have done a good job of protecting ourselves and each other.

So, was the Spanish Flu worse than Covid-19? Some say yes, some say that Covid-19 is no worse than any other flu and that our country and state leaders are over reacting.

And, maybe there is some validity to that theory. But, we should also stop and ask ourselves a few other questions.

If Woodrow Wilson were the President today, would we be doing this well?

If science and technology had not advanced as it has in the last 100 years, would we be doing this well?

If we were not adhering to the Stay at Home orders, would we be doing this well?

If we did not have the advances in medicine and research, would we be doing this well?

If we were suffering from Covid-19 in 1918, would we be doing this well?

Probably no one can fully answer those questions, but can we all be thankful that we don’t have to find out?

We hope so.

In the meantime, stay in, stay healthy, and we’ll look forward to seeing you when this is finally all over.

[Nila Smith]


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