Deja flu? This year's influenza outbreak doesn't come close to the one in 1918
By JIMMY TOMLIN | The High Point Enterprise, N.C. | Published: February 5, 2018
HIGH POINT, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — Say what you want about the severity of this year’s flu epidemic, but you’ll have to forgive Dr. Chris Ohl if he doesn’t find your sense of alarm contagious.
To see what a real flu scare looks like, he says, you have to go back exactly 100 years to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918, which killed more Americans — far more — than were killed in combat during World War I.
“We’ve had other flu outbreaks before, but the one in 1918 and 1919 was the granddaddy of them all,” says Ohl, a professor of infectious diseases at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center who’s writing a book about the history of infectious diseases in North Carolina. “It was a lot worse than what we’re seeing this year. A lot worse.”
For example, the state’s death toll for the current flu season is just shy of 100 people, according to public health officials. By contrast, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 claimed the lives of 13,644 North Carolinians, which is the equivalent of three times the student body at High Point University.
“People were scared to death, because there were so many people dying,” Ohl says. “When a virus is raging very quickly and it seems to have a high mortality, people panic. There was a lot of panic.”
High Point, of course, was not immune to the outbreak, which appears to have peaked here during the fall months of 1918.
The city’s first flu death, reported by The High Point Enterprise on Sept. 30, 1918, was actually a 38-year-old Asheboro man who was stricken while staying in a local hotel. The disease would claim many more lives in the ensuing months, from High Point’s well-respected mayor, prominent attorney William P. “Bill” Ragan, to 12-year-old Enterprise paperboy Garl Welch. One entire family was wiped out by the flu, with Park Street resident Ed Bryant burying his wife and daughter before succumbing to the disease himself. In another High Point family, the mother died from the flu, leaving behind 11 children, eight of whom also had the disease; it’s not known if any of those children died, too.
One particularly sad story was that of 23-year-old Fleeta Goolsby Carroll, who died on Oct. 26, 1918, a mere six days after contracting the disease. Her husband, W.O. Carroll, was serving with U.S. armed forces in France and therefore could not attend his young wife’s funeral. Furthermore, the Enterprise reported that prior to becoming ill, the young woman had helped nurse six other flu-stricken patients, which may be how she caught the disease herself.
Another sad story was that of 17-year-old High Pointer Donald Mitchell, who died in Newport News, Virginia, where he had gone with his employer to work on a job. More than two weeks before his death, his employer sent a telegram to the Mitchell family in High Point, stating that their son was desperately ill. Unfortunately, the telegram was delivered to the wrong Mitchells, who hurried to Newport News, only to discover the ill teen was not their family member. They returned to High Point, but apparently did not notify Mitchell’s actual family, so his next-of-kin didn’t even learn of his illness until after he had already died.
According to Ohl, many of those who died in the 1918-19 pandemic died not of influenza itself, but of pneumonia that resulted from the flu.
“A lot of deaths were due to complications, and one of those was bacterial pneumonia,” Ohl says. “There were no antibiotics back then, so they really couldn’t treat the bacteria — they had to rely on the person’s immune system to get through it. Now we have antibiotics, and that makes a big difference.”
As the influenza spread and the death toll climbed, city officials took a number of steps to try and slow the disease down.
One such mitigation tactic the city employed was what Ohl calls “social distancing,” which means keeping people away from each other by canceling crowd-intensive events such as parades, sporting events and even college classes. Public schools in High Point closed — and city churches stopped holding worship services — for more than a month, in response to an emergency health ordinance passed by the City Council. Theaters were shut down, too. The planned dedication of Wesley Memorial Church’s new sanctuary was postponed indefinitely, and the always-popular Central Carolina Fair was canceled.
Meanwhile, the city printed 1,000 cards reading “Spanish Influenza, Beware,” which were to be posted at infected homes. Other cards were printed that read, “Don’t spit on the sidewalks and in public places, $2.00 fine.”
The Enterprise and another High Point newspaper, The Review, published advertisements encouraging residents to wear flu masks to protect themselves and others. Ads for Vick’s VapoRub and other purported flu-fighting products also were common.
As the number of influenza cases gradually subsided in November, residents and business owners began to breathe easier.
Still, the owner of one local movie theater, the Broadway, wasn’t taking any chances. A large advertisement in the Enterprise boasted that Broadway patrons would be in no danger of contracting lingering flu germs because the theater would be fumigated twice a day, and the air in the theater would be changed every two minutes, thanks to the facility’s new ventilation system. “With the precautions taken here, you will be as safe as you are at home,” the ad proclaimed.
By early December, it appears normalcy was beginning to return to High Point, and the scare was all but over by the end of the year.
According to Ohl, individuals who are fearful of this year’s flu scare would do well to remember what High Pointers faced a century ago.
“It was so much worse,” he says. “That virus (in 1918) was a lot meaner, or what we would call more virulent, than what we’re seeing today.”
©2018 The High Point Enterprise (High Point, N.C.)
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