A Tale Of Two Pandemics: Utah's Response To The 1918 Flu and Coronavirus Outbreaks Chronicled In U Of U Digital Exhibit
Almost as soon as the coronavirus pandemic began in the U.S. in March, historians began looking back to the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic to gain some perspective on what’s unfolding today. Now, a new digital exhibit at the University of Utah explores how Utah responded, diving into the pandemics 100 years apart.
Given the similarities, there was much to learn, from assessing how states and local jurisdictions fared based on how strict their preventive measures were, to how social distancing remains the best method of controlling the disease in the absence of a vaccine.
The Spanish Flu pandemic was one of the deadliest in history. From 1918 to 1919, the disease infected about one-third of the world’s population and 675,000 people died in the U.S.
In Utah, the first case of Spanish Flu arrived in early October 1918, with the first death reported shortly after. But by the end of winter, the pandemic had largely run its course, according to the U’s timeline of the pandemic.
By comparison, COVID-19 has infected more than 38 million people worldwide as of Wednesday, and the outbreak is ongoing. In the U.S., it’s killed more than 216,000 people — including 527 in Utah — and infected 7.9 million overall.
The coronavirus first came to Utah in March 2020. And now, as fall weather sets in, the state is seeing record case counts and hospitalizations from the disease, and has revamped its strategy to slow the spread.
“There are so many parallels, it's almost overwhelming,” said Anna Neatrour, interim head of digital library services, at the University of Utah’s Marriott Library. ”You go in and look at some of these historical newspaper articles and see the same arguments — pro and con — about masks. It really makes you feel a little bit closer to that historical perspective, and then also sometimes a little bit sad that we haven't moved beyond.”
In both pandemics, new cases and deaths were reported daily. The diseases brought sweeping changes throughout the state and broader society, from business and school closures to stay-at-home orders, as well as similar reactions for and against the restrictions.
Perhaps one of the most striking similarities is how politics swallowed up both pandemics. University of Utah political science professor Phillip Singer said politicizing public health has been an American tradition dating back nearly to the founding of the country. In an effort to prevent new diseases from arriving, the federal government issued an order to quarantine ships for 40 days before they could come to shore.
Singer said that during the 1918 flu pandemic, World War I initially prevented politics from taking over. But as the 1918 midterm elections approached, Singer said then-President Woodrow Wilson, who was a Democrat, made a statement about keeping his party members in office, which turned out to incite a political divide.
“That really burst the dam for Republicans,” Singer said. “And so you see this really quick change in strategy in the few weeks leading up to the midterm election, where they're talking about the failures of the Wilson administration and their response to the flu and using it as a political football for their electoral gains.”
Singer said it turned out to be a winning strategy. Republicans took control of both chambers of Congress, gaining six seats in the Senate and 24 in the House.
The politicization of public health affected how people view restrictions such as mask mandates, then and now. In 1918, a mask mandate was adopted first in Provo, and later in Salt Lake City, Ogden, Utah County and eventually statewide.
Similar to today, mandates became frequent targets of people who argued their individual liberties were being trampled, Singer said.
But even in 1918, most public health officials viewed masks as a simple and effective measure to prevent viruses from spreading.
“The mask has been brought into particular prominence through the influenza epidemic,” a Salt Lake Tribune article from October 1918 stated. “But it is merely a simple and effective piece of hospital equipment that has been in general use many years.”
One notable difference between 1918 and 2020, however, was that the Spanish Flu and reactions to it in Utah operated on a faster timeline than what’s happened with the coronavirus. State officials met in 1918 to discuss their first cases Oct. 4, reported the first death the next day and introduced “drastic” public health measures four days later.
“Salt Lake will be churchless, schoolless, and amusementless after tonight,” a Salt Lake Telegram article wrote.
The same day, officials with the Red Cross began rushing to renovate an old hospital for emergency use to isolate and treat influenza patients.
Public health orders also came with more bite than they do today, Neatrour said. Newspaper articles show police enforced regulations, and violators faced arrests and court appearances. An office manager was arrested for staying open past the mandated closing time. A man in Park City was arrested for not wearing a mask, as was a doctor who failed to report a confirmed case of influenza.
Health officials also put placards on people’s houses who had been infected to let everyone know they had the Spanish Flu.
“I can't imagine anything like that happening in this day and age,” Neatrour said. “There isn't that kind of systematic identification of people who've been infected. And I wonder if people would be more careful if something like that were happening.”
Singer points out that another difference between the two pandemics is that the political climate today is much more contentious than it was in 1918. Singer notes that polls since March have shown that one of the best predictors of whether someone will wear a mask or comply with social distancing measures is their political ideology.
“That makes it so much harder to kind of respond adequately to these public health emergencies,” he said. “We've got disagreement around the proper role of government. We've got disagreement on who we can trust. We've got disagreement over whether we should wear a mask or open up schools.”
He said pandemics require widespread cooperation to fight. But rather than learn from its mistakes, he said in that respect, the country seems to have gotten worse.