MOUNT VERNON -- Viral epidemics come and go, with one occasionally becoming such a nuisance, it effectively shuts down the world for a while.
A number have reared up in the last decade or two (SARS, Ebola, and other nasty strains). This is a mean one in the COVID-19 virus.
It triggers memories of the 1918-19 influenza pandemic, popularly known then as the “Spanish Flu.” In this instance, aside from today's controversy of the name itself, the area of origin may not have been Spain. A key difference this time is COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus, not influenza.
Yet the lessons learned from that pandemic can be valuable today.
The 1918 bug was nicknamed “Spanish Flu” because there was a war going on — later referrred to as World War I due to future events, but at the time was known as The Great War -- and the countries involved were vigorously repressing reports about a flu epidemic because each side feared it may make them look weak to the enemy.
One country which didn't have that problem was Spain, which remained neutral in the war. Not having censorship, it reported on the first wave of the virus and ended up getting saddled with the name that makes it sound like it originated there.
According to studies by modern epidemiologists, the influenza of 1918 — a variety of the H1N1 virus that, according to the CDC, caused 9,000 to 18,000 deaths in the U.S. — probably first sprang up in the United States, possibly in Kansas. Other reports have the 1918 version starting at Boston Harbor.
It may have been an Avian Flu that mutated somewhere in the late 1800s or early 1900s, spreading slowly among mammals. A new mutation around 1913 allowed the virus to leap into humans, where it slowly gained momentum until it spread worldwide in 1918.
In its first wave during the late spring and early summer of 1918, the influenza would not have seemed particularly different from any other flu. Like any average flu, it caused an upleasant wave of symptoms which would keep a person down from days to weeks. In weakened or older individuals, it could be fatal, but usually wasn't.
That commonplace nature meant little was said in early 1918.
The first mention of the virus in Mount Vernon came on Sept. 20, 1918, with a report in the Mount Vernon Democratic Banner about an army camp in Massachusetts, where 5,000 soldiers were believed infected and nine had died. Just days later a report said the Ohio state health department was asking physicians to report any cases of the influenza, as they were working actively to prevent the virus' arrival in Ohio.
Fact is, it was probably already here.
Why the change in tactics?
Because in the late summer of 1918, the virus mutated again, this time becoming far more contagious and more deadly. The new strain of the virus developed a way of attacking the human body's natural defenses, causing them to wildly overreact, exhausting the patient and bringing on death.
This strain proved deadly in two interesting ways. The “regular” version of the flu that passed across the U.S. in March/April of 1918 hit the normal targets: the very old and very young. When the mutated version began spreading in September, the very old and very young who had already had it were immune to it.
So this new, deadlier version attacked young adults 20 to 40 years in age. Since these people had an abundance of virus-fighting white blood cells, the mutation's ability to turn those white blood cells to attack the body itself made it far deadlier.
Additionally, because of the war, the U.S. and other countries had large camps of soldiers in the most vulnerable demographic, packed in tightly together. In only two months — September and October of 1918 — 300,000 U.S. soldiers contracted the influenza, and 20,000 died of it.
On Sept. 27, the Banner ran a wire report that said the infuenza was not turning out to be as bad as predicted. That was just before it exploded in full fury.
That same day, Howard Blair and Bishop Dickinson, both young Knox County men, wrote home to tell their families that they each came down with and survived the virus in September while on duty at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Chicago.
So reports were still falling in line with the easing picture. But on Oct. 1, the Mount Vernon army enrollment board was told to cancel the 38 recruits they were about to send to Camp Sherman in Chillicothe.
Camp Sherman was the third-largest military camp in the U.S. in 1918. The camp was built by bulldozing a number of Indian mounds, and operated like its own separate city, containing 1,370 buildings. It was to become one of the worst-hit areas of the pandemic.
When the influenza hit, it infected thousands of the 21,000 soldiers in the camp, and over 1200 of them died. The infection spread into and around Chillicothe with a similar rate of fatalities.
On Oct. 4 the Mount Vernon Red Cross announced guidelines that sound eerily similar to our present ones. People were asked to avoid unnecessary travel, avoid people who coughed, and for those tending influenza victims to wear face masks. The same day, the Banner carried notices of people entering the hospital and Danville's 17-year old Helen Smith dying from pneumonia, a frequent consequence of the influenza virus.
A report from Millwood on Oct. 5 said that it was overrun with infuenza cases.
On Oct. 8, the Vine Theater ran an ad noting that the theater “is thoroughly fumigated every day” with a “change of air every 15 minutes during performance.” The same day the Red Cross ran an “urgent appeal” for more nurses. Meanwhile, social events and performances continued, unabated.
On Oct. 11, numerous names pop up in the Banner as ill with the Spanish flu or already dead from it, including Alfred Clifton Coile, a well-known clerk at the post office, who died at the age of 49, leaving behind a wife and son. This is also the first day that the epidemic makes front page news, considering that the war in Europe was still in full swing.
But it was time — past time — to pay attention to the spread of the flu. What had looked like a minor problem just a week earlier had suddenly exploded because of the lack of precautions. Finally, schools and public places were closed to prevent further spread of the disease. The west wing of Kenyon College was quarantined and converted into a hospital triage area.
On Oct. 15, it was announced that the number of reported cases of the flu in Ohio had hit 60,000.
By this time the death rate at Camp Sherman and in the surrounding areas was over 50 deaths per day. the Majestic Theatre in Chillicothe was pressed into service as a flu victim morgue.
One of the recruits who died was 22-year old Roger McCullough of Martinsburg, who entered the army on Sept. 5.
Camp Sherman soldier Clarence Berry wrote home to his family in Mount Vernon right after the death rate began to slow:
“Alive and kicking. Feeling fine and the worst of it is over. If everything goes along as well as it has, expect to be out of quarantine before long. I understand that one or two Knox County boys have 'gone west.' Too bad, but we were lucky. It looked bad, yes, very bad for a while, but I will say that if it had not been for some of us older, harder men, some of the newer men would have 'gone west.'
"In conjunction with our group medical corps, we, being one of the first companies to get the disease, fought it like demons, and I am proud to say we have the smallest death record of any company in Camp Sherman.”
Some of the more remote families in the countryside were never even exposed to the virus.
Eloise Shipley Hagan, who later penned a century of memories in the book My First 100 Years (which we will be exploring in the near future!) said this about 1918: “There was a worldwide influenza epidemic and many, many people died. We were so isolated on the farm that none of us became ill.”
She was an 11-year-old 5th grader living on a farm outside of Fredericktown. She later lived to be 105!
The epidemic hit the towns hardest. No official totals were ever compiled, but it appears that the county had somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000 cases of the flu, and possibly as many as 200 of them resulting in fatalities.
It is interesting, too, that when you peruse the pages of local media, one finds that even when a lot of cases are still simmering in the community in late October of 1918, they are suddenly almost always not fatal.
Apparently, the virus mutated again. A virus's sole aim is to replicate itself and spread. When the Spanish Flu turned stronger in the late summer of 1918, it got so deadly that people were dying more frequently and communities abandoned their usual activities, thus making it difficult for the influenza to spread.
When a strain of the virus turned mild, it was able to survive better. Thus the strong strain died.
The milder form of the flu kept annoying Knox Countians through the rest of the year, and schools did not reopen until January 1919. But that's what prevented a third wave of the pandemic.
That's why we have to take these precautions of quarantine and not assembling. Anywhere from 25 to 50 million people died around the globe that 1918-19 flu season, perhaps as many as 500,000 in the U.S.
Ohio's response varied, as Cleveland had a higher death toll than New York City or Chicago, but Toledo had 311 perish per 100,000.
We're ahead of that curve this time around, but we'd best keep on guard. The 1918 pandemic started fairly mildly. It was only when the virus mutated to something much worse that it suddenly exploded into a nightmare where the U.S. saw thousands of people dying every day.
So far, we're doing better this time around. Keep patient and stay healthy, my friends.