News of a deadly flu outbreak begins slowly in a country overseas. The news accelerates as illness spreads around the world, but in the United States it seems far away.
Seem like recent headlines?
The epidemic reaches our shores. And as the numbers of infections and deaths dramatically increase in this country, government officials take drastic action. Emergency proclamations are made. Quarantine locations are hastily assembled.
The Spanish flu happened 101 years ago, in the fall of 1918, at the tail end of World War I.
It killed 1,513 people in Seattle; 6,571 statewide. 675,000 in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Worldwide, the estimate is 21 million to 100 million deaths. Because of the war, and with the epidemic in so many countries, accurate numbers were elusive.
And now we have COVID-19, the fourth epidemic of the 21st century — the others being SARS in 2003, H1N1 in 2009 and Ebola in 2014.
“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure moves around in circles,” said Dr. Howard Markel, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. “We keep saying it’s not a matter of, ‘If we have an epidemic,’ it’s a matter of when.”
The pediatrician was one of the editors of the Influenza Encyclopedia, a vast repository for historical documents on the American influenza pandemic of 1918-1919. It tells what happened in 50 American cities, including Seattle.
And what happened in this city in 1918, in comparison to 2020?
“It sure sounds familiar,” Markel said.
On March 5, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan acquired broad new powers as the City Council approved an emergency coronavirus declaration. She’ll be able to bypass regulations and steps usually required for city spending, contracting, borrowing and temporary hiring.
And on Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered a halt to all gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, and ordered schools across the state to immediately begin contingency planning for potential closures in the next several days.
It happened a century ago, too.
On Oct. 5, 1918, Seattle Mayor Ole Hanson made a stunning announcement.
He ordered “every place of indoor public assemblage in Seattle, including schools, theatres, motion picture houses, churches and dance halls closed by noon” that day, a Seattle Daily Times story said.
The only public gatherings permitted would be those in open air.
A memorable photo taken around that time shows a young man wearing what looks like a white surgical mask, standing in front of a downtown Seattle theater.
“All theatres CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE at request of Mayor,” read a sign placed on the ticket booth.
There were those who believed the order heavy-handed. The city’s schools superintendent said Hanson was “getting hysterical.”
But Hanson was a hard line law-and-order mayor.
When a theater manager said there was little danger of the flu spreading to audiences, Hanson replied, “Some will kick, but we would rather listen to a live kicker than bury him.”
When pastors complained about closing churches, Hanson said, “Religion which won’t keep for two weeks is not worth having.”
Locals took the closures in stride.
By the next day, The Times headline was, “No place to go, so Seattleites walk streets.”
Stores tried to find opportunity in the closures.
On Oct. 18, Frederick & Nelson, the landmark department store, ran ads for Victrolas, an early record player, and its entertainment brand, Victor Talent.
“The theaters are closed — but Victor Talent brings the world’s greatest musical entertainers to you right in your home,” the headline said.
The city took other drastic actions, by Oct. 24 raising the fine for spitting on the sidewalk from $2 to $5 (that’s $81 in today’s dollars). The Times reported 31 men on that day had been arrested for “expectoration nuisance.” There also was a $5 fine for not wearing a mask on a streetcar.
The city, then and now, had to scramble to find some place for the flu patients.
Last week, King County purchased a motel in Kent for emergency quarantine.
In 1918, Mayor Hanson asked the City Council for $5,000 ($85,000 in today’s dollars) to turn the top floor of the old County Court House for influenza patients.
The Spanish flu got its name not because it originated in Spain.
World War I fostered influenza in the crowded conditions of military camps in the United States and in the trenches of the Western Front in Europe, according to a 2010 Public Health Report. The virus traveled with military personnel from camp to camp and across the Atlantic.
According to a 2008 paper published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases, the epidemic was first publicized in Spain because it was a neutral country during the war. It didn’t have wartime censors keeping a lid on such news.
By Sept. 30, the news reports in Seattle told of an escalated outbreak: 650 to 700 cases at the Naval Training Station at the University of Washington. Still, it was described as “mild influenza.”
Four days later, the news turned ominous.
On Oct. 4, The Times reported 14 deaths from the flu among several thousand recruits at the Bremerton Puget Sound Naval Training Station.
Whether in 2020 or in 1918, the flu pandemic produced those who would cash in on public worries.
On Tuesday, the state of Missouri filed a lawsuit against televangelist Jim Bakker and his production company to stop them from advertising or selling a product called Silver Solution as treatments for the coronavirus, according to a report by NPR. By Wednesday, Bakker’s website was no longer hawking the solution, in which $80 got you four 4-ounce bottles.
In 1918, an ad running in this paper was for “Oil of Hyomei” that, once inhaled, promised to “absolutely destroy the germs of influenza.” It was composed of alcohol, liquid paraffin and a lot of oil of eucalyptus.
Images archived from those days in Seattle show the flu’s impact:
• A trolley car conductor barring passengers not wearing masks. By Oct. 29, six-ply gauze masks were mandatory in Seattle, and mandatory in the state by the next day.
• Election officials and voters at a precinct Nov. 5, all wearing masks, with orders “to keep doors and windows open so that fresh air would flow.” People 101 years ago lined up outside this paper’s headquarters at the Times Square Building, 414 Olive Way, to catch the latest news. To keep crowds from congregating, this paper announced, “Obedient to a request by Mayor Hanson” the paper “will not bulletin the election results …”
Then, five weeks after Mayor Hanson’s ban on public gatherings, it was all over.
The war ended on Nov. 11 when Armistice was announced. The Seattle Times front page headline: “Seattle in ecstasy of joy at ending of world’s worst war. Parades of joyous, shouting, happy workers forsake jobs, home and family to let the world know that peace has come.” The joyous crowds weren’t wearing masks.
The next day, the headline was, “Influenza ban completely off.”
Theaters and schools reopened, public gatherings were once again allowed.
The flu lingered around in the winter months of 1919, and in December there was a second wave.
The City Council passed a quarantine resolution. By Dec. 10, nearly 1000 homes had quarantine placards posted on them.
“Resident, perhaps worried that the gathering bands and public closures they had come to detest might be enacted again, seemed eager and willing to do anything to help … In the public schools, attendance was more than fifty-percent below normal enrollment, in part due to illness but largely because worried parents kept their healthy children home,” the Influenza Encyclopedia says.
Does the latter also sound familiar?
By late December, the second wave of the flu was largely gone.
Markel says that once the coronavirus pandemic passes, if history repeats, “We all experience global amnesia.”
But if history repeats itself, once the pandemic is over, Markel says, “I guess we’re relieved. We don’t want to think about that stuff. We want to go on with our lives.”