Not Colorado’s first pandemic: Lessons learned from Spanish flu

The governor of Colorado urges residents not to gather in crowds. Schools close, movie theaters shutter and public transit limits ridership. Denver’s mayor bans meetings, religious services and parties.

This scenario — close to what we’re experiencing with the coronavirus today — comes from the history books, when another pandemic swept the world just over a century ago.

Instead of Gov. Jared Polis issuing orders to shut things down in Colorado, it was Gov. Julius Gunter putting in place restrictions. In place of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s directives, Mayor William Fitz Randolph Mills issued the orders to whittle down crowd numbers in the Mile High City.

In 1918, a particularly deadly form of influenza dubbed the “Spanish flu” struck Colorado and the rest of the world. It infected nearly 50,000 Coloradans and left approximately 8,000 dead. Across the country, more than half a million people were felled by the epidemic, and worldwide the death toll may have been as high as 100 million.

The current coronavirus pandemic, which began in China late last year and is still raging four months later, has infected nearly 700,000 people worldwide and killed more than 30,000. In Colorado, there are more than 2,000 cases with nearly 50 dead.

“Not only has this happened before, but the experience of the people who lived through it is remarkably similar,” said Sam Bock, a public historian for History Colorado.

Even some of the resistance to government-imposed restrictions on movement and gatherings a century ago is playing out again today. This month, U.S. Rep. Ken Buck called it “craziness” to shut down businesses in the face of the pandemic. And just this week, President Donald Trump said he hoped the country can reopen for business by Easter — even though numerous public health officials believe that strict self-quarantine measures will need to go on for months.

The pandemic of 1918 showed the hazard of easing up too quickly, with Denver seeing a resurgence in Spanish flu cases after allowing people to once again congregate before things were fully under control. Gunnison, by contrast, kept a much tighter lid on movement throughout and was spared the worst of the pandemic.

“This is an exponential contagion,” said Susan Kent, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “If we don’t stop this, there won’t be people to have an economy for.”

“Towering, overwhelming surge”

The Spanish flu, or La Grippe, traces its origins to hog farms in western Kansas — specifically Haskell County — not far from the Colorado border, according to John M. Barry, author of the acclaimed book “The Great Influenza.”

Barry, who wrote about the Spanish flu for Smithsonian Magazine, theorized that migratory birds moving through that part of the state may have passed the H1N1 virus on to pigs, which eventually transferred a potentially mutated form of it to humans. In March 1918, a soldier stationed at Camp Funston in central Kansas took ill with the flu.

It quickly spread to other Army camps throughout the United States and then to Europe, where American soldiers were being sent to fight in World War I, Barry wrote. But the disease was largely dismissed by troops and their superiors as a nettlesome “three-day fever,” and by summer, a U.S. Army medical bulletin stated that the “epidemic is about at an end.”

“In fact, it was more like a great tsunami that initially pulls water away from the shore — only to return in a towering, overwhelming surge,” Barry wrote.

In August 1918, cases of the flu began to pop up in Switzerland that were more virulent than ever, Barry wrote. U.S. soldiers returning from European battlefields to Camp Devens, an Army training base in Massachusetts, were the first in America to be sick with the reconstituted virus.

As with the early days of today’s COVID-19 pandemic, few social distancing measures were enacted as the Spanish flu — so named because the Spanish press gave it heavy play while other countries clamped down on newspaper coverage — began its march across the globe.

A massive Liberty Loan parade in Philadelphia was allowed to proceed through a crush of onlookers despite warnings from health officials that it would spur cases of the novel flu to skyrocket. At its peak, Spanish flu killed 759 Philadelphians in a single day. In all, more than 12,000 city residents died — nearly all of them in one six-week stretch, Barry wrote.

Jaime Breitnauer, author of the recently released book “The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History,” told The Denver Post in an email that any measures to substantially slow the 1918 pandemic came too little too late — or were lifted too early.

“Raising money, keeping people’s patriotism high and troop movement were all prioritized over public health in the U.S. and many other countries,” she wrote. “The ban on group gatherings was a desperation measure, once the death toll had mounted, because in many places authorities didn’t really know what else to do.”

It wasn’t long before the disease spread westward.

Fits and starts

The first documented death from Spanish flu in Denver occurred Sept. 27, 1918, when University of Denver student Blanche Kennedy succumbed to the strange new disease after a trip to Chicago. Dr. William Sharpley, the city manager of health and charity and a former Denver mayor, had formed an influenza advisory board the day before, according to a historical account from the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.

Sharpley urged Denver residents to take many of the measures being advocated today to stop the spread of coronavirus: avoid needless crowding, cover all coughs and sneezes, keep homes and offices well ventilated, and seek a doctor if symptoms develop.

“He also offered the less-than-helpful recommendation to keep a clean mouth, a clean heart, and clean clothes …,” the account reads.

But on the whole, city residents carried on as usual as cases of Spanish flu quietly multiplied throughout the community, according to Stephen Leonard, a history professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who in 1989 wrote a detailed article about the epidemic in Colorado.

Forty-thousand people gathered in Cheesman Park in early October to gaze at a never-before-seen warplane while another 10,000 thronged the streets for a war bond parade, Leonard wrote. Just over a week later, Denver had 1,200 cases and 78 deaths.

He said Coloradans trying to fight off the new disease were at a massive disadvantage compared with people today. Makeshift hospitals were established to house and sequester the infected — a church in Fort Collins, a school in Craig, a hotel in Salida. Colorado Springs begged Denver for oxygen, as medical supplies dwindled and health care workers succumbed to illness.

“In 1918, they didn’t have the scientific understanding of what we have today,” Leonard said. “They paid a price, but they didn’t know what they should do.”

At a minimum, medical officials understood the concept of social distancing, though it wasn’t called that then. Isaiah Knott, a health officer in the Uncompahgre Valley, chided his fellow residents in Montrose as cases mounted there.

“If you are sick and do not stay away from social gatherings, you have the heart of a hun,” the Montrose Daily Press quoted him as saying on Oct. 8, 1918.

In Denver, health chief Sharpley realized tougher measures were needed and in mid-October he convinced the mayor to ban indoor gatherings, funerals and church services and limit passengers on the city’s streetcars. Drugstores, hotels and restaurants were exempt from the restrictions, Leonard wrote.

Outdoor assemblies were allowed to continue, on the mistaken thinking that as long as fresh air was coursing through the crowd, sickness wouldn’t spread.

At certain points during the fall of 1918, the number of cases appeared to be leveling off in Denver. Business owners pressured government officials to let them open back up, Leonard wrote. Theater owners even descended on Mayor Mills’ office to demand he ease up on restrictions that were costing them $50,000 per week.

The mayor relented. On Nov. 11, Denver residents poured into the streets to celebrate Armistice Day — the end of World War I. Two weeks later, the city recorded 605 cases of Spanish flu and 22 deaths on a single day.

Restrictions had to be reimposed as public life once again ground to a halt. It wouldn’t be until January 1919 that the Spanish flu would finally run its course in Denver, though it lingered into the spring in outlying parts of the state.

“Ignore the shouters”

The virus never really took hold 200 miles west in a Colorado mountain community that instituted a strict lockdown before it arrived.

All public gatherings were disallowed. Anyone arriving in Gunnison by train was immediately placed in quarantine. Two men trying to sneak into town over Cochetopa Pass were arrested. According to Leonard’s research, The Gunnison News-Chronicle warned on its pages: “This disease is no joke, to be made light of, but a terrible calamity.”

The draconian measures earned the town the title of “escape community,” as it emerged comparatively unscathed.

In 2020, Gunnison is far less isolated, with a modern highway system making travel easy and a ski industry luring thousands of people to the high country. Gunnison County, with 52 cases of COVID-19 and one death, leads Colorado in cases per 100,000 people.

“We are doing our best to have the least amount of contact with the vulnerable population,” Mayor Jim Gelwicks said. “We’ve been resilient in the past, and I believe we’ll be resilient in the future.”

The contrast of the Gunnison experience during the Spanish flu pandemic to much of the rest of the country can serve as a lesson for communities struggling with the coronavirus outbreak today. Bock, the History Colorado historian, said serious efforts to stop the virus from its rampage won’t come without tremendous economic damage. But the alternative is worse, he said.

“We know what the prescription is, but it’s a matter of political and personal willpower,” Bock said. “This is going to be a test for American tolerance for self-limitation.”

Breitnauer, the author and historian, said society today will benefit from the sweeping medical advancements that have occurred over the past century, which can provide hope and comfort that wasn’t conceivable in 1918. But until a vaccine can be created, slowing the virus is all that can be done for now.

“It is important to remember that today, unlike in 1918, we understand how viruses work and scientists will be looking at data, modeling patterns and advising the government accordingly, whereas in 1918 they just put one finger up to the wind and made a decision based on who was shouting loudest,” she said. “The challenge is for the governments of the world to ignore the shouters, and pay more attention to the quiet, well-educated voices who understand how pandemics work.”

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