A long-ago pandemic success story shows the value of social distancing
By DANIEL PATRICK SHEEHAN | The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) | Published: April 13, 2020
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ALLENTOWN, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — Apart from historians, no one thinks much about Camp Crane anymore. The World War I military training ground at the Allentown Fairgrounds served its purpose and disappeared into history, and many people walking around the farmer’s market or strolling the midway at the annual fair probably have no idea they are tracking the ghostly footsteps of doughboys.
They are also on the site of what was one of the more successful efforts to contain influenza during the 1918 influenza pandemic — commonly called the Spanish Flu — that killed upwards of 50 million people. It’s a story worth revisiting, not only as evidence that isolation and distancing work to thwart the spread of infection, but as a reminder that the coronavirus pandemic, too, shall pass.
The camp was established in 1917 on the fairground’s roughly 50 acres as headquarters of the newly established U.S. Army Ambulance Service. It was named for Brigadier General Charles H. Crane, a 19th century surgeon general, and served as a training ground for ambulance drivers and orderlies — the men who would evacuate the wounded from the meat-grinder battlefields of Europe when the U.S. entered the war.
In all, 20,310 volunteers — 2,085 officers and 18,225 enlisted men — passed through the camp from June 1917 to April 1919, about six months after the armistice that ended the war. The facility was built for 2,500, but the population fluctuated, and it housed two to three times more than that at times.
The average population during the deadliest wave of the flu, the late summer and fall of 1918, was about 2,100. It should have been a hotbed for infections. But only 355 cases and 13 deaths were recorded, a toll that surely would have been much higher without prompt mitigation efforts.
“The experience [was] rather remarkable...given that the camp was located on a very small parcel of land in the middle of busy downtown Allentown,” wrote the authors of a 2006 study of the pandemic by the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School.
As with COVID-19, most people who caught the flu in 1918 recovered. What made the outbreak so cataclysmic was how widely it spread. It infected 500 million people — a third of the world’s population at the time — and its death rate translated to a ghastly global toll.
Also like COVID-19, the virus was novel, meaning no one had ever been exposed to it before. That meant there was no level of immunity in the population that would have impeded the spread. Nor was there a vaccine.
The first wave of the flu arrived in the spring of 1918. It wasn’t especially remarked upon, given the war, and it subsided when warmer weather arrived. Late that summer, however, it returned with extraordinary ferocity. Remarkably infectious to begin with, the flu moved far and wide on the wartime current of troop movements.
At Camp Crane, officials saw the wave coming. On Sept. 23, they drafted a series of protocols aimed at heading off a disaster. Just three days later, on Sept. 26, the first illnesses were reported — three officers and a private. More cases were reported among soldiers arriving to the camp the next day.
What happened next, according to the University of Michigan study, was an effective, if imperfect, response that made use of the same strategies rolled out in response to the coronavirus — isolation of the sick and separation of everyone else.
In the barracks, each soldier was allotted 100 square feet of space. At meals, they sat on one side of the tables so they didn’t face each other. New arrivals were quarantined under guard for 72 hours. Anyone suspected of having the flu was taken to an isolation annex at Allentown Hospital.
Civilians were barred from the camp except for official business, while soldiers and officers were prohibited from entering city bars and other “places of amusement” or participating in public gatherings. The camp’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Richard Slee, ordered masks for medical officers and soldiers who cleaned the barracks.
What made the plan imperfect was that some of the “official business” that allowed civilians into the camp included sporting events and vaudeville shows. The Oct. 31 edition of The Morning Call reported that 3,000 soldiers gathered at the fairgrounds grandstand for an evening of music, comedy and dancing.
“It was an open air entertainment and was very much enjoyed by the boys who are now confined to the grounds on account of the quarantine,” the story said.
The camp also had a traveling jazz band, and its football squad played games off base, including a November contest against the Muhlenberg College team.
Despite that, the measures were effective. The camp’s infection rate, 35 cases per 1,000 troops, was dramatically lower than the 252 per 1,000 for the Army as a whole. The difference prompted the U.S. Medical Corps to request details from Lt. Col. Slee about the camp’s containment methods.
Slee offered five reasons for success: anticipating the outbreak, so the camp had time to prepare; effectively cleaning mess kits; supplementing barracks with tents to increase distance between troops; isolating symptomatic soldiers; and sending confirmed cases to the hospital.
“We were in good running order and it simply required a little stiffening up when we anticipated trouble," he wrote.
Around the world, the flu did its greatest devastation in that last quarter of 1918. It subsided, then recurred the next two years in a far less severe form.
Then it vanished. So, in time, did the memory of the pandemic, as a world that had suffered the double trauma of war and pestilence tried to move into a brighter future.
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