“Spanish influenza resembles grippe.”
“Malady does not thrive in damp climate.”
“Conditions here against disease.”
Those were the headlines and subheadlines on Page 1 of the American Press on Sept. 26, 1918. Grippe is a disease like influenza. The comments were by Dr. G. C. McKinney, who was Calcasieu Parish and city health officer at the time. He added that well-known authorities said the disease actually originated in Siberia and was not of Spanish origin.
McKinney said there were no cases in Calcasieu Parish at the time and no illnesses that resembled it in any way. However, he said he was keeping a careful watch over the conditions in the parish.
Unfortunately, those beliefs by medical authorities at the time proved inaccurate. A Louisiana Morbidity Report from January-February 2006 said the bulk of the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 occurred between October 1918, and March 1919, and it took about 5,500 lives in the state, a mortality rate of 2.2 percent of the cases reported.
The population in the state was 1.75 million. The number of Spanish Flu cases reported between Oct. 1, 1918, and Feb. 28, 1919, totaled 244,857, which was about 10 to 15 percent of Louisiana’s population.
The worldwide death toll was more than 20 million, and the U.S. death toll was estimated to be about 675,000. The American Press reported on Nov. 18, 1918, that the influenza death toll had exceeded the lives lost among American Expeditionary Forces in World War I.
People died without medical attention because hospitals were overwhelmed, the Morbidity Report said. It added that restrictions on public meetings were put in place in October and November, then lifted, although the epidemic continued until March.
Reports from that week showed there were 142 cases in Beauregard Parish, 94 in Jeff Davis, 63 in Calcasieu, 5 in Allen and none in Cameron. The story said the greatest mortality rate due to the epidemic, in proportion to population, was 7.4 per thousand in Philadelphia.
Cases slowed for a time, but the Press on Dec. 4, 1918, reported that a quarantine had to be reinstated. Regulations were placed on people and on everything planned for amusement and pleasure during the holidays.
Surprisingly, Surgeon General Rupert Blue of the United States a week later said, “The country need not fear that the influenza epidemic will return. It has come and gone for good.” He said sporadic outbreaks could be expected in various parts of the country and added that “like the poor, we have influenza always with us.”
The newspaper on Dec. 20 said the resurgence of influenza in many sections of the country was because citizens weren’t following the guidelines designed to keep them safe. Sneezing or coughing into the air were the major ways the germs were transmitted. The organisms could float in the air for hours, and overcrowding, which wasn’t taken seriously, increased the spread, according to the newspaper.
Just as we are currently restricted from large gatherings because of the coronavirus, things were much the same in 1918. In fact, news reports said St. Louis had the lowest mortality rate because citizens obeyed those restrictions much better than the people of Philadelphia.
New Orleans waited longer than many other big U.S cities to start imposing social distancing measures in 1918, according to a recent March 13 report by The Times-Picayune,and The New Orleans Advocate. Only then did it close schools, churches and theaters and ban large gatherings.
Justin Nystrom, director of the Loyola University’s Center for the Study of New Orleans, told the reporter, “One of the great paradoxes is that the time to do it (close things down) is earlier than the political will exists to support it.”
The New Orleans newsman interviewed John Barry, the New Orleans author who wrote the bestseller, “The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History.”
Barry told the reporter, “The disease didn’t really care. There was not a hell of a lot you could do.”
Medical protection equipment is better today, the reporter said, decreasing the likelihood that doctors and nurses would fall ill. Unfortunately, that hasn’t turned out to be the case because of the current shortage of virus tests, protective masks and ventilators and delayed test reports.
As bleak as the times seem now, like the citizens of 1918, we should remember the comforting words offered by a reporter back then.
“Things will not always be gloomy; people will get well; schools will open; churches will hold forth again; theaters will show a tempting array of bookings and everything will go on in the same normal way.
“One good thing about it will be the way everyone appreciates the return to normal life. This period of keeping within doors will make them more appreciative of the gifts they have always enjoyed.”