Story by Jenny Paulson – If history speaks of experience, officials have learned from studying the pandemic of influenza in 1918, which like our 2019-2020 coronavirus, spread quickly throughout the world. The most major lessons from the over century old pandemic, are that officials didn’t act quickly enough to mandate orders to stay at home and when the flu of 1918 appeared to ease up, state and local governments proceeded to allow people to congregate again too quickly, before things were really under control, and there was a resurgence in Colorado.
Colorado was hit hard because of it’s distance from Kansas, with the first cases hitting the state in September of 1918. Several thousands of Coloradans died of the flu in just four months between September and December that year. In total, about 49,000 became infected with the flu out of a then state population of 906,000. But stats are hard to determine because many were reported as having died of pneumonia, caused by the flu.
The 1918 pandemic claimed the lives of an estimated 30-50 million people worldwide, more than those who died in both world wars combined. The 1918 flu remains one of the deadliest disease outbreaks in history.
In the US, the 1918 influenza actually began near Colorado on the Kansas-Oklahoma-Colorado border, originating from swine in hog farms, believed to have been infected by migrating birds, according to scientists. It was often called the Spanish Flu, but it didn’t even originate in Spain, and it wasn’t originally a human flu. Scientists say it was genetically changed by the hogs, thus spreading to thousands.
The flu hit a soldier camp in Kansas the hardest and then spread to other army camps throughout the US. Because Haskell, KS wasn’t far from Pueblo, it got hit hard. Biologists released an effective vaccine and in Pueblo, steel workers were vaccinated to no avail. The disease continued to spread.
Because it was wartime, the flu spread rapidly in Europe and the rest of the world, and was brought back by more US by American soldiers who returned home.
That year, Pueblo was one of multiple cities that included, Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs, that ordered schools, churches, theaters, and public gatherings to close temporarily as the virus spread through Boulder’s university, army camps and among civilians who had traveled outside of the state, bringing it back. Some trains required all passengers to wear face masks.
The scenario from 1918 appears to be repeating itself in many ways today. In March of 2020, amidst the spreading coronavirus in Colorado, which originated in China, Colorado’s Governor Jared Polis signed an order to close all unnecessary activity, as many cities did in the day with some orders coming from then governor, Julius Gunter.
Like in 1918, people are reacting in fear, stockpiling food at home. Schools, movie theaters, and thousands of businesses throughout the entire state are mandated to be closed at least until April 11th in 2020 Colorado. Parks have closed, religious services and public gatherings have ceased, and public transit is limiting ridership.
Today’s cononavirus pandemic, which began in late 2019 in China, has none been spreading throughout the world for four months, infecting about 700,000 people worldwide to date and has causing the death of more than 300,000. Colorado now has 2,000 cases with nearly 50 deaths, but officials believe there are many more untested cases and that there’s no sign that the spreading will stop anytime soon.
Experts looking back in history to 1918 say that officials then weren’t upfront about how serious the flu was and although measures were finally put in place too late, they the government then allowed people to congregate again before the flu was really under control.
One historian, Jaime Breitnauer, who wrote the book The Spanish Flu Epidemic and its Influence on History told the Denver Post “any measures to substantially slow the 1918 pandemic came too little too late – or were lifted too early. 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.”
Today Polis’ says the Trump administration was two weeks late in acting nationally. He admits his own actions may be seen as extreme in history, but says that his Stay At Home orders are necessary to prevent possibly hundreds of thousands from dying of the disease in Colorado alone.
In 1918, there were inadequate medical resources as is the case today. Polis and other officials, including in Pueblo County, say there is a lack of masks, gowns, supplies and no viable vaccine as of yet. Even with modern technology, tests are lagging, taking often or over a week for lab results making it so officials, making decisions, can’t even get a “real” number of those positive to coronavirus.
Colorado on March 29th was declared to be in a state of emergency by President Donald Trump. New tests with quicker results have been created and emergency assistance and economic relieve for businesses and workers is underway.
Colorado officials say they taking the historic experience of 1918 and using it in part to create today’s strict public health policies to try to control the highly contagious coronavirus and that had extreme measures not been implemented quickly, the outbreak would be much worse. Polis has made it clear that people are to abide by the stay at home rules, and law enforcement in Pueblo has said they will enforce his orders.
While the future is unknown, there will be a day this pandemic will be a part of the history of Pueblo and Colorado, hopefully with the least amount of deaths possible. Stay at home Pueblo and shine a light outside every evening at 8 pm until April 11th, showing solidarity and hope.
The chart shows daily and total cases and deaths from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which notes not all cases are active. Cañon City High School students wear masks during the 1918-19 pandemic. Photo courtesy History Colorado.