The COVID-19 outbreak, characterized by the World Health Organization as a global pandemic on March 11, has upended the lives of people around the world, including everyone in northeast Indiana.
The last major pandemic that dramatically struck our communities occurred in 1918-1919. I recapped the local history of that epidemic in an article in November 2018. It is reprinted below.
In the fall of 1918, the Spanish influenza pandemic, the deadliest since the Middle Ages, had a major impact on communities in northeast Indiana. But quick action by state and local officials lessened the death toll.
About 500 million people, one-third of the world’s population, became infected with the flu virus during 1918-1919. At least 50 million people worldwide died, including 675,000 in the United States.
Mortality was high in people 20 to 40 years old, a unique feature of the pandemic. Some victims died within hours of their first symptoms. Others lingered for a few days, suffocating to death when their lungs filled with fluid.
The name “Spanish flu” was a misunderstanding. During the First World War, Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral. Wartime censors suppressed news of the flu pandemic in the Allied and Central Powers nations, while the Spanish media was free to report it openly. So it was assumed, incorrectly, that the pandemic originated in Spain.
The first outbreaks of the flu occurred in Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918. Sporadic flu activity spread unevenly throughout the United States, Europe and Asia over the next few months. A second wave, which was responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic, hit in September, with Indiana recording its first flu cases that month.
Indiana officials, on recommendations from federal health officials, announced on Oct. 6, 1918, a statewide health crisis. In a telegram to all of Indiana’s county health officers, the State Board of Health ordered local officials to close all schools, churches and public amusement facilities until further notice. The order also forbade public meetings, except for small committees such as those involving the Liberty Loan campaign to raise money for efforts to win the First World War.
As soon as Dr. Cyrus A. Gardner of Kendallville, secretary of the city board of health, read the telegram he contacted school officials who immediately closed the Kendallville schools at noon the same day. The schools in Kendallville and in some area schools remained closed for nearly six weeks and then for another week in mid-December.
In an article in the Oct. 7, 1918, edition of the Kendallville News-Sun, Dr. Gardner warned area residents to cover their mouths and noses when they sneezed. “And above everything, do not spit on the sidewalk or anywhere else if you can help it,” he said.
In the same issue, the Kendallville News-Sun reported two new cases of the Spanish flu, both persons being employed in the offices of the McCray Refrigeration Co. The office was immediately fumigated and the homes of the afflicted were put under quarantine.
By Oct. 10, the State Board of Health announced that the flu had reached an epidemic stage in Indiana, with cases doubling daily and the death toll rising. Eight new cases were reported in Kendallville the same day and Dr. Gardner issued another warning to area residents to follow the quarantine rules. He also urged the banning of leaf burning “because smoke is said to carry the germs quicker and better than any other medium.”
On Oct. 12, Dr. Gardner said he was well pleased with the way Kendallville area residents were heeding the warning. “Of course we miss the picture shows and the church bells and the lodge meetings, but there had been no influenza funerals in Kendallville as yet.”
That optimism soon changed. The Kendallville News-Sun reported on Oct. 15 two local flu deaths, Jesse Pierson of Rome City, and local soldier Leslie Watts, who died at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois. (In a span of weeks, 1,400 soldiers died of the flu at Camp Grant.) On the same day in Stroh, 40 cases of flu were reported and the town’s only physician, Dr. C. W. Dancer, was confined to bed with influenza. News reports indicated that several other area doctors had become ill with the flu and there was a shortage of medical assistance. The death of Dr. Stewart Schrock of LaGrange, who had succumbed to influenza, was revealed on Oct. 16.
By mid-October, the State Board of Health reported 20,000 cases of the flu had been reported statewide, including 5,000 new cases in 55 counties.
On Oct. 19, the Noble County health officer, Dr. J. H. Ravenscroft, reported 167 new cases of flu in the county. He said a limited supply of flu vaccine would be arriving soon from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
Because there were no public gatherings or meetings, the editor of the Kendallville News-Sun apologized to his readers about the lack of local news in the paper. And he asked for help. “I respectfully ask all friends of the telephone to use the telephone generously. If you just think of it, each of you can find one or more items of news interest every day. Telephone them in, and we will all appreciate it greatly. Just try it.”
In DeKalb County, the flu outbreak was most severe in early October. The Garrett Weekly Clipper edition of Oct. 10 reported 200 cases and four deaths, including a 6-year-old girl and a 32-year-old railroad fireman. The pandemic eased in DeKalb County a few days later and on Oct. 21, schools in Garrett resumed.
On Oct. 26, the State Board of Health extended the ban on public gatherings and in Noble County, the number of flu cases was continuing to grow at an alarming rate.
On Oct. 30, Dr. Gardner in Kendallville warned residents against any Halloween activities or parties.
The State Board of Health ban on public gatherings was lifted on Nov. 1, but county health officers were given the power to continue the ban in their own districts. The situation in Steuben County was deemed improved and public schools in that county resumed on Monday, Nov. 4. However, Noble County extended its ban another week.
The State Board of Health reported shocking statistics about flu cases and resulting deaths in the month of October 1918. There were more than 1,200 cases reported in Noble County with 30 deaths; 1,000 cases in LaGrange County with 27 deaths; 758 cases in DeKalb County with 10 deaths; and 623 cases in Steuben County with 19 deaths.
In the early hours of Nov. 11, when news of the signing of the armistice, ending World War 1 reached area communities, there were spontaneous celebrations held in every area city and town all day and night. Everyone seemed to forget about the flu pandemic for at least one day.
The flu ban was lifted in Noble County on Saturday, Nov 16, with the exception of Noble Township in the southwestern part of the county. Churches in Kendallville conducted services for the first time in six weeks on Nov. 17, with most churches reporting large attendance and much joy over the news of the ending of the Great War in Europe.
Classes resumed in Noble County schools on Nov. 18. But flu cases rose dramatically again within two weeks and on Dec. 8, Kendallville health authorities and Mayor U. C. Brouse ordered a reinstatement of the local ban of public gatherings and the closing of the schools. The ban was expanded to all of Noble County on Dec. 13.
On Dec. 20, Dr. Gardner ordered the lifting of the ban in Kendallville at 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, with several restrictions: No children under 16 years of age allowed in theaters; no children permitted on the streets or in stores except with their parents; no Sunday school classes in churches should be conducted; and no Christmas entertainment or parties shall he held in churches or homes.
Kendallville went ahead with its traditional Christmas celebration on Dec. 24. In pouring rain, led by the city band, more than 1,300 children joined in the parade from City Hall to the corner of Main and William streets. Near the municipal Christmas tree, the children met Santa Claus and received presents.
Most schools throughout Noble County and Kendallville reopened on Monday, Dec. 30. To make up for many lost school days, schools were in session on Saturdays for the rest of the school year in most districts. And the extended Easter break was eliminated.
The flu subsided dramatically in northeast Indiana and other parts of the state in the early part of the new year. That was due in part to the strict public ban that was enforced in most communities.
In recent years, scientists discovered the genetic complex that is thought to be responsible for the Spanish flu pandemic. The complex, which contains three genes, allowed the virus to survive and replicate inside the lungs, leading to severe pneumonia, the main cause of death in the outbreak.
Influenza remains a major threat to public health and pandemic strains emerged in 2009 and 2010 worldwide. But fortunately, nothing as severe as the 1918 Spanish flu outbreak has occurred in the past century.
What can we learn from the 1918 pandemic? The most obvious answer is that social distancing works. That was proven a century ago locally. When schools, churches, meetings and social gatherings were canceled, it helped stop the spread of the disease.
During this year’s pandemic, there were big differences in the peak coronavirus rates for two Chinese cities where the first outbreaks were reported. Guangzhou, which implemented control measures early, had significantly fewer hospitalizations from the virus than the city of Wuhan, which put strict measures in place a month into the outbreak.
Back in 1918, people seemed to take the pandemic more seriously because, shockingly, it resulted in the increased mortality among people in the 20s, 30s and 40s. The early data from China during this year’s COVID-19 outbreak showed that older people were more likely to die from the disease. That led fewer young people to make social distancing a priority. The data now seems to show that COVID-19 infects people in every age group equally while the seriousness of the disease rises with age.
We all need to do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. Social distancing will help avoid a spike in cases that overwhelms our health care system.