COVID-19 pandemic mirrors 1918 flu pandemic

The responses to the two pandemics including closures, distancing, masks and phased reopening are strikingly similar.

Posted: Aug 6, 2020 6:49 PM
Updated: Aug 6, 2020 6:50 PM

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic isn't the first time Oregon has dealt with a global pandemic.

The 1918 flu pandemic, previously known as the Spanish flu, has a lot of similarities to what we're experiencing now. Closures, distancing, masks and phased reopening are strikingly similar to how the world responded a century ago to a similar crisis. 

World War I was in full force in 1918, and reports came from the battlefield saying a strong respiratory illness was taking out soldiers. 

The flu infected one in every four people on the planet within the next year, killing at least 50 million people. 

Oregon State University professor Christopher McKnight Nichols said by the fall of 1918, a number of cities across the country implemented mask mandates. Some included fines of $5 or $10 or jail sentences if you didn't wear one. 

He said implementing these policies and enforcing them was a major challenge back then, just like we're seeing now. 

"History is repeating itself. We're seeing resistance to masks, strong ordinances or requirements in particular. The most obvious example was something called the Anti-Mask League which developed in early 1919 in the city of San Francisco. That's about the only example of thousands of people organizing against masks," Nichols said. 

Nichols said it was the exception rather than the rule to have organized resistance to masks in 1918. He told KEZI 9 News there was individual resistance but it wasn't as political and it wasn't as organized. 

He said you cannot become complacent and society needs to act fast whenever there's a new spike. One of the lessons from 1918 is that cities opened too fast. The ones that did, saw far more deaths and disease after reopening because there was too much spread in the community. 

Nichols said the thing that keeps historians and public health scholars up at night is what they call the second wave. The first wave was in the spring of 1918 and that was bad enough. However, when the fall came and more people went inside, the spread was exponential. He said the bulk of people died within just six weeks in the fall of 1918. 

"It was devastating, and that's what worries us all because once society gets more relaxed and complacent with these measures, which is exactly what we're seeing these days and why we're seeing new peaks, just imagine fall and what a new wave will look like," he said. 

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