Our 1918 Pandemic – our responses then and now

We have been exploring the 1918 influenza pandemic and its regional impacts. Last week we began comparing that epidemic with our COVID-19 epidemic to better understand each and perhaps reach a clearer understanding of our current epidemic journey.

Last week we compared the numbers sickened and killed by these pandemics. While both exacted terrible tolls, the catastrophic costs of the 1918 pandemic were on a scale well beyond what we have experienced from the COVID-19 pandemic. But we also know the costs of our current pandemic are incomplete because it is on-going.

Our national and regional responses to these pandemics provide another way to compare and contrast their impacts.

President Wilson was president during the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. John Berry, in “The Great Influenza,” wrote, “Wilson took no public note of the disease and the thrust of the government [supporting the war effort in Europe] was not diverted.” Neither the White House, nor senior administration officials provided leadership or coordinated help to states fighting the epidemic. Thus, state and local governments were on their own to protect their people.

President Trump was in office during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike President Wilson, he acknowledged the epidemic disease from its emergence; limited travel from known epidemic centers; and repeatedly reassured the nation the situation was well in hand.

Once the epidemic took hold and states initiated epidemic restrictions, the president organized a COVID-19 taskforce and, while reluctant to wear the masks it recommended, oversaw distribution of federal guidance, personnel support, and stockpiles of medical materiel. He continued sharing optimistic assessments of the epidemic.

As the epidemic persisted into summer, the president disengaged from the taskforce and began encouraging states to lift epidemic restrictions to boost economic activity. He also funded an accelerated vaccine development program that resulted in the testing and approval of two vaccines before he left office in January 2021.

President Biden, since his January inauguration, accelerated production of the approved vaccines and organized a federal-state partnership for vaccinating Americans.

The U.S. media response to the two epidemics was also strikingly different. The Wilson Administration created a massive public information campaign to support its war effort, supported by laws to punish criticism of the government. This led to self-censorship by the nation’s print media. Editors avoided publishing information that might hurt wartime morale.

The editorial page of the Lyon County News-Messenger reflected the reach of this national campaign from March 1918 through the war’s duration by proclaiming, “This paper has enlisted with the government in the cause of America for the period of the war.”

The News-Messenger first used the term “influenza” on October 4, 1918, weeks after Massachusetts reported epidemic influenza, when reporting outbreaks in Ghent, Russell, and Sodus Township. The editorial page suggested the enemy may have caused the epidemic; said the epidemic was hurting wartime production; and encouraged readers to seek fresh air and avoid crowded spaces. The paper first printed public health guidance from the Surgeon General three weeks later, after having reported widespread influenza and over thirty deaths in the region.

In other words, print media had not prepared our region for the onrushing epidemic.

In contrast to the media response to the influenza epidemic, national and regional media have covered the COVID-19 pandemic throughout. It has also publicized public health guidance to minimize risks of contracting or spreading COVID. In other words, our region was well aware of the COVID pandemic and how to help limit its spread before we experienced widespread local cases.

The 1918 influenza epidemic provoked a limited response by Minnesota state health authorities. The elected leaders in our regional communities, on the other hand, responded aggressively by closing

public gathering places like schools, churches, theaters, and pool halls. But these regional restrictions were time-limited as the epidemic struck in late September 1918 and, excepting scattered cases, had abated by February 1919.

State authorities led the primary response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Governor Walz issued emergency directives requiring schools to implement distance learning; closing churches to in-person worship; closing bars and restaurants; imposing a stay-at-home order; closing non-essential businesses; and requiring masks in pubic. The governor adjusted these restrictions as conditions changed and coordinated state-wide COVID testing and vaccination programs. But these measures and programs have been in place for many months. This epidemic has persisted over a much longer period, testing our region beyond the shorter 1918 influenza epidemic.

A tragic similarity between the two pandemics is that each confronted the medical community with viral mutations. The influenza virus mutated into a more deadly form during the summer of 1918, while COVID-19 mutations have produced more infectious variants.

A tragic difference between the two epidemics relates to their victims. The 1918 epidemic killed young adults, whether military or civilian at frighteningly high rates, while the elderly enjoyed a degree of immunity, likely from prior exposure to a similar influenza virus. A current CDC analysis of 414,838 U.S. COVID-19 deaths revealed 81% were in age groups 65 years and older.

Other differences between the two epidemics lie in the medical responses. For instance, the medical community did not even understand the cause of the 1918 disease. Scientists first isolated the influenza virus in 1933. Physicians in 1918 had no specific medications for nor vaccines against influenza. Standard medical treatments included providing aspirin, imposing bedrest, and applying cold compresses for fever.

Today’s medical community, on the other hand, employs specialized equipment like genetic sequencers to assist vaccine developers and advanced diagnostic imaging and respirators to help assess and treat patients. They have medications such as steroids to manage patients’ immune response and anti-viral drugs to limit the duration of symptoms. Finally, today’s medical community developed, tested, and produced multiple vaccines to protect against COVID-19

We have been living through historic times for over a year. We have rallied to each other as our region did in 1918. We must continue to rally to and support one another as we journey toward a day when we can look back at this epidemic, rather than continue walking through it.

I welcome your participation in and ideas about our exploration of prairie lives. You may reach me at prairieviewpressllc@gmail.com.


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