We’ve Seen This Before

Emergency hospital during influenza epidemic, Camp Funston, Kansas. Source: National Museum of Health and Medicine. Public Domain.

Story by Rachel Seitz, OSU English major and intern for the Stillwater History Museum at the Sheerar

As of May 8th, the state of Oklahoma is seeing a slow plateau in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases. As the state begins to slowly re-open its doors, many Oklahomans are wary of COVID-19 making a larger, deadlier comeback. Fear and suspicion have proven to be just as contagious as the virus, but what many Oklahomans haven’t recognized is that we’ve seen this scenario before. Humans who occupied this earth just 100 years ago somehow got through it, and that fact has been comforting for some who are anxious about COVID-19. The comfort comes not from the decline of confirmed cases, but that the “Spanish influenza” of 1918 was similar to COVID-19 in both public and personal response. 

Simply put, the Spanish flu did not spare Oklahoma in 1918. Its initial appearance in the Sooner State was detected in Tulsa and Clinton on September 24, 1918, and by October 4, 1918, 1,249 cases had been reported in 24 counties. After that, the spread became so difficult to track that health officials began making reports in generalities. An issue of the Yale Democrat dated October 17, 1918 explained that Spanish influenza symptoms were similar to that of a cold, accompanied by body aches, weakness, and high fever, which typically lasted one to four days and ranged from anywhere between 100° and 104°. Symptoms were said to have a sudden and severe onset. The U.S. Public Health Service advised that although symptoms between the two were very similar, the common cold was not nearly as contagious as Spanish flu. Most deaths attributed to Spanish flu were caused by the complications that can arise as a result of it, pneumonia being the most common. Spanish flu was believed to be spread from person to person via “droplet infection”; i.e., germs expelled by coughing or sneezing could be inhaled and infect a nearby person breathing the same air. 

A chart of deaths from all causes in major cities, showing a peak in October and November 1918. Source: National Museum of Health and Medicine.

An issue of the Stillwater Gazette from October of the same year advised that those who were “weak and rundown” would be the earliest victims of Spanish flu and that certain high-risk groups were in “grave danger” if preemptive measures were not taken. Both the Gazette and the Yale Democrat informed readers that schools, religious services, and non-essential businesses were closing across the country to prevent the spread of influenza to vulnerable groups. Gatherings of any kind – public or private – were forbidden. Those infected were advised to stay indoors and rest, both to keep away complications and to keep the patient from spreading the flu. The Yale Democrat noted that an infected person should remain in one room with minimal contact, and to keep the number of people in the house to a minimum. Others who must enter the room, such as nurses, would “do well by wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient”. Finally, both newspapers cautioned that there were no approved cures to Spanish influenza, and that the only medications patients should take were those prescribed by a doctor. Certain pharmaceutical manufacturers had been professing “miracle cures” that only spread misconceptions about the influenza.

This will sound oddly familiar to those of us living in 2020. Although Spanish flu was a strain of influenza and COVID-19 a result of a coronavirus, both are highly contagious viruses with similar impacts. As of January 1919, 7,500 Oklahomans had died as a result of Spanish flu, out of 100,000 total cases. As of May 10, 2020, 272 Oklahomans have died of COVID-19, out of 4,589 total cases. These numbers are expected to rise again in the coming months, but just like the Oklahomans of 1918, we are taking similar preventative measures to curb the spread of this pandemic. The route of infection for COVID-19 is thought to be inhaling infected mucus particles from coughing or sneezing, so health officials have advised similar precautions to those of 1918. Though many orders to shelter in place have expired, the public is still cautioned to wear protective facial coverings outside the home. “Essential” businesses like grocery stores are still enforcing “social distancing” by requiring shoppers to stand 6 feet apart. Large gatherings are still prohibited. Those who are infected with COVID-19 are being asked to isolate themselves in one room of the house and to wear face coverings if they must interact closely with others. There is an abundance of professed cures to COVID-19, none of which have been approved for public use. Misinformation and myths are spreading like wildfire, only adding to the confusion. However, just like the Oklahomans of 1918, our resilience has caused the future to look a little less bleak in this difficult time.