Flu photo

An emergency hospital was set up in Brookline, Massachusetts, in October 1918, to care for influenza cases. The Spanish flu cases in northeast Indiana peaked that same month.

WHITLEY COUNTY — “You are hereby ordered to close all schools, churches and places of public amusement and forbid public meetings in the county until further notice.”

These words were written by the state board of health in a letter to Dr. E.V. Nolt, Whitley County health officer, in 1918, sound quite similar to messages the public has received in the past three months related to the coronavirus pandemic.

All churches, schools, factories, theaters and pool rooms were closed and gatherings were prohibited. All homes with illness were ordered quarantined. “Keep away from influenza homes,” the headlines read.

The Spanish Flu epidemic, which began in spring 1918 and had three waves, tapering off by 1919, killed millions of people across the world. It had a major impact on communities in northeast Indiana, but quick action by local officials lessened the death toll.

America had the more visible threat of World War I at the time, but the Spanish Flu ended up killing more Americans than the entire war — about 675,000 Americans and 50 million worldwide. About 500 million people were infected worldwide from 1918-1919.

Comparatively, the United States recently surpassed 111,000 COVID-19 deaths and nearly 2 million infected.

The most affected groups of COVID-19 are adults over age 65 with underlying health conditions, but the Spanish Flu behaved differently — affecting the young, old, and middle-aged healthy adults between ages 20-50. Many who died were newlyweds or parents of young children. Some died within hours of their first symptoms.

The Spanish Flu had similar symptoms to the traditional flu that we face every year, but would often be followed by a severe case of pneumonia, which proved to be fatal in many individuals.

The name “Spanish flu” was a misunderstanding. During the First World War, Spain was one of only a few major European countries to remain neutral. Wartime censors suppressed news of the flu pandemic in the Allied and Central Powers nations, while the Spanish media was free to report it openly. So it was assumed, incorrectly, that the pandemic originated in Spain.

The first outbreaks of the flu occurred in Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918. Sporadic flu activity spread unevenly throughout the United States, Europe and Asia over the next few months. A second wave, which was responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic, hit in September, with Indiana recording its first flu cases that month.

With much less transportation and mobility in 1918 compared to 2020, the Spanish Flu hit Whitley County in the fall of 1918, months after it was first discovered in the United States.

Indiana officials, on recommendations from federal health officials, announced on Oct. 6, 1918, a statewide health crisis. In a telegram to all of Indiana’s county health officers, the State Board of Health ordered local officials to close all schools, churches and public amusement facilities until further notice. The order also forbade public meetings, except for small committees such as those involving the Liberty Loan campaign to raise money for efforts to win the First World War.

For COVID-19, the state health department provides daily updates of positive cases and deaths via its website.

In 1918, local newspapers published names of those infected, with new lists coming out frequently, including names of the sick and their physician.

In one report, doctors said there were “hundreds of cases” in Whitley County, and that they were “so busy that they did not have the time to make out their reports to the board of health.”

Newspaper advertisements promoted items that claimed to prevent illness. “Spray your throat and nose as protection against influenza — every home should have a Devilbiss Atomizer,” an ad by Carter, the druggist, printed in Columbia City in October 1918.

Similar to today, in 1918 health officials put out notices in newspapers asking people to stay away from public gatherings, and to be wary of individuals with symptoms.

Many community activities, such as sports, auctions, churches, schools, businesses and theaters were closed.

Interestingly, Whitley County reported more than 1,000 cases of the Spanish Flu by October 1918, but Allen County only reported 13 cases, and some accused the neighbors to the east of not reporting all cases.

Many doctors and nurses became sick themselves, just like in the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. David Linvill, secretary of the Columbia City Board of Health, offered the following sentiment at the “end” of the epidemic in early November:

“While the epidemic of influenza is apparently passed, and having 10 cases out of every 1,000 population is termed an epidemic, there will be a person here and there who has influenza, so beware of anyone who has a cold, as it is assumed that they are influenza carriers, and beware of the sneezer, cougher and spitter. All persons discovering that they are taking a cold in any form should report to their family physician immediately for treatment, not only for their own preservation of health but to prevent the spread of the so-called colds. The complications are dangerous to life, and those who have had the disease and go about with a subnormal temperature are not yet well and their own life is in danger until they are again in normal resting power.

“The history of the cases in this vicinity is that those who have a relapse rarely get well. Heart failure may develop, pneumonia may develop, bowel complications may develop; so take good care of yourselves, do not over-exert, over-eat, nor stay in too close rooms. Get plenty of fresh air.

“The Board of Health wishes to thank the “Flu” Committee and the Local Chapter of the Red Cross for their tireless, energetic work in assisting to control the dreaded epidemic, and all others who assisted during this epidemic by closing their places of business, thereby losing dollars but probably saving lives.”

His tone changed quickly just weeks later, in late November 1918, when he issued a much different statement after the virus took hold of the community again.

Linvill reported that 21 children were absent from south side school, 25 from the high school, and 71 from the west school buildings. Most of those students were afflicted with influenza, and about half were being attended by a physician.

He stated that “if parents didn’t keep their children off the streets and in their homes while suffering from the influenza or heavy colds, it would be necessary to quarantine them and enforce it, and if that will not get results, another shut-down will follow.

“There is no question that the disease is spreading in this city, and that it is due to rank carelessness on the parts of heads of families. Fortunately, there have been no serious cases in this city for the past few weeks, but with so many cases developing, the chances are high that a number of cases of pneumonia and meningitis will follow,” he said.

In 1919, cases began to decline, and eventually life returned to normal in Whitley County.

Information for this article was discovered at the Whitley County Historical Museum, 108 W. Jefferson St., Columbia City.

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