Unprecedented Times?

It was one hundred years ago when the influenza pandemic, known as the Spanish flu, hit the world. Now, a century later, another infectious disease epidemic is sweeping the globe. Both have caused shocking death rates and other serious health issues. Then, and now, people faced major struggles during the pandemic. In 1918 it was a terrible war – WWI. For us, we are not at war with other nations, but have been locked in bitter debates around issues of mask-wearing, racism, and politics.

Newspapers in 1918 naturally offered plenty of stories about the final months of WWI but relatively few about the growing pandemic.

The origin of the “Spanish flu” name stems from newspapers reporting on the pandemic in Spain. Having remained neutral in the war, Spain did not impose wartime censorship. Newspapers freely reported the epidemic’s effects, and these widely-spread stories created a false impression of Spain as especially hard hit. More recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) has called for modern best practices for naming new human infectious diseases in ways to minimize unnecessary negative effects on nations, economies and people. They recommend the Spanish Influenza now be called the “1918 influenza pandemic.”

The flu in 1918 and early 1919 came in three distinct waves — a usually mild form in the spring and summer of 1918, followed by the deadly strain in the closing months of that year, and ending with a return of usually milder disease in the early months of 1919, not fully tapering off until 1920. Not everyone who became ill was infected with the virulent “Spanish” flu; some had a milder form. The H1N1 flu killed both directly and by leaving victims vulnerable to secondary infections with bacterial pneumonia, which was often fatal even in the absence of the flu. But because the flu was so contagious and pneumonia was so often found during autopsies of flu victims, the federal Census Bureau decided to use a single category in its mortality statistics for 1918: “deaths from influenza and pneumonia (all forms).”

As State health officials tried to deal with the pandemic they asked for federal advice and were told: “Service does not recommend quarantine against influenza.” Newspapers published creative, but incorrect, treatments for flu. One recommendation involved cutting an onion in half and setting it in a room to absorb flu germs. Another advised people to mix table salt with water to use as a nasal spray, tooth powder or mouthwash. As health officials weighed choices locally one official noted “One can avoid contracting the disease if he will go into a hole and stay there, but the question is how long he would he have to stay there? The indications are that it would be at least for a year or longer.” Despite its early concerns, the Washington State Board of Health did not impose statewide measures to combat the pandemic until it was well under way. The only preventive regulation of statewide application that the board issued came on November 3, 1918, when it required that surgical masks of a specified size and thickness “entirely covering the nose and mouth” be worn in virtually all public places where people came into close contact with one another. The order also required that the proprietors of stores, restaurants, and cafes “keep their doors open and their places well ventilated” and that one-third of the windows in streetcars be opened when in use by the public. The mask mandate didn’t receive a groundswell of support and was difficult to enforce. Many residents who lived outside of city centers viewed influenza as an urban problem. But the virus spread to small communities as well.

It is in the autumn of 1918 that the influenza outbreak really began to be felt in the Snoqualmie Valley. Between the end of October 1918 and February 1919, twelve residents in the towns of North Bend, Snoqualmie, Fall City, Preston, Edgewick, Cedar Falls and High Point died from influenza including: Henry Harrard, section foreman; Margaret Weeks, wife of North Bend Timber Co co-owner; Andrew Ronnei, Fall City merchant; Verna Rollins, housewife, and two soldiers in the Spruce Division: one stationed at Edgewick and the other living in Cedar Falls. In November 1918, North Bend was quarantined because of the number of cases and travel to the city was banned. Schools closed locally for nearly two months in October and November.

In the health board’s December 1918 biennial report they noted that in the five years from 1913-1917, from the five most common contagious diseases there had been 1,768 deaths. From influenza alone in the first ten months of 1918 there were well over 2000 deaths. The health board’s next biennial report was not issued again until January 1921 and was almost silent on the 1918 pandemic.

by Cristy Lake, Assistant Director

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *