CASPER, Wyo. – The COVID-19 global pandemic has encouraged many to look back at the devastating flu pandemic that swept the world just over a century ago.
By all accounts, the global flu pandemic of 1918 was nothing short of a catastrophe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, it was first identified in military personnel in spring 1918, then continued in three different waves around the globe through early 1919. The third wave was the most intense, killing an estimated 50 million people worldwide, with around 675,000 in the United States.
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As of this writing, the total number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States stands at just more than 10,500. Wyoming is the last state in the nation without a reported coronavirus death as of March 7.
In 1918, modern medical technology was in its infancy. There were no vaccines available to slow or stop its spread, nor antibiotics to treat secondary infections.
Unlike COVID-19, which is deadly mostly to older or sick people, one of the curious and devastating features of the 1918 flu was the high mortality rate among children and young, healthy people.
Though it likely originated in the United States, the pandemic has for generations been called the “Spanish Flu,” as at the time it appeared to start in Spain. That early misconception was the result in Spain’s neutrality during World War I where, unlike America and other parts of Europe, the press was encouraged to play down the pandemic so as not to further alarm an already war-weary public.
Fortunately for us, Casper’s press reports from 1918 are rather robust, giving us a chance to compare the differences and striking similarities in our situations more than a hundred years later.
Wyoming wasn’t spared the flu’s fury. In spite of its low population, according to the Wyoming State Historical Society, the state lost 780 people to the disease. In comparison, around 500 Wyoming people died fighting in WWI.
As the disease took hold in Casper by early October 1918, the Casper Daily Tribune reported that “hell dives were bustling and angry movie theater owners were threatening to reopen.”
“Because the city administration persists in its policy of permitting the saloons, cabarets, David Street resorts and Sandbar dives to flourish unmolested with an epidemic of influenza threatens the city,” wrote the paper on Oct. 10, “theater managers of the city are contemplating re-opening their places of business for the entertainment of the public.”
The paper said Casper’s infamous Sandbar nighttime scene was “where a class of people who throw themselves open to every form of contagion and epidemic congregate and mingle,” only to later “associate with people on the street and others transacting legitimate business.” The paper slammed the mayor for allowing “such flagrant violation of all ethics of decency and humanity.”
Casper had at least two hospitals in 1918, one “state” and one “private.” The private hospital was operated by Dr. Lathrop from a remodeled house that is still standing on South Durbin. An annex in that hospital had been converted into flu isolation wards by the fall of 1918.
As the pandemic’s deadly second wave reached its peak, Casper’s state hospital, which was controlled in Cheyenne, suddenly stopped admitting flu patients.
An Oct. 12, 1918, article in the Casper Daily Tribune blasted the decision on its front page, stating “With flagrant disregard for suffering and the precepts of all institutions of mercy, the state board of which Governor Houx is a member…has issued orders barring all influenza cases from the hospital…”
The paper said there were at least 200 cases of influenza in Casper at the time, and 23 homes were under quarantine.
Echoing today’s COVID-19 situation, the article states that all public meetings, schools and “places of public amusement” were closed, following other similar actions around the state.
A wire story in the same edition announced that “Hundreds of Flu Victims are Unburied” in Philadelphia.
“Undertakers are unable to cope with the situation,” the story said. “The public has been asked for volunteers to dig graves.”
A freight agent for the Burlington railroad told the Daily Tribune on Oct. 8 that Omaha was “shut tight agains the spread of influenza, along with other cities of the West.”
Death notices connected to the flu were frequent.
An announcement in the Oct. 14, 1918, edition of the Casper Daily Tribune said the flu “claimed another victim in Casper Saturday when Newton Blatenberg, the 5-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Ward Blatenberg of this city, died at the home of his parents.” The paper said his brother Edward was also sick but “is reported somewhat improved today.”
On Nov. 8, the Daily Tribune said “five children orphaned by death of both father and mother” from the flu. The paper reported that Mrs. May Dupes and Anthony Dupes, who was a fireman on the railroad, both died, and Mrs. Dupes’ brother, Otis Evans, died in Casper around the same time.
In an Oct. 31 article, the paper gives advice on avoiding the flu, some of it still solid even now, and some not so much.
“Avoid crowds as much as possible,” it said. “Limit your visits to moving picture places, theaters and assembly halls.”
Frequent hand washing was mentioned, though it was sixth on the list just after “drink water freely” and before “avoid common drinking cups, common towels and similar utensils.” Other advice was to be “properly clothed” and to “keep your bedroom windows wide open.”
On Nov. 18, the ban was lifted by order of the County Health Officer.
“Relaxation of the influenza epidemic which first tightened its grip on Casper and Natrona County six weeks ago and caused some 50 deaths directly attributed to this cause, today resulted in an official order lifting the ban on Monday of next week…” said the Nov. 16, 1918 article in the Casper Daily Tribune.
The order came even after the paper reported the previous day that 15 new cases of flu in Casper had been reported, with two deaths reported the night before.
“Hospitals are still filled to capacity and the doctors are urging that precautions should be followed as diligently as heretofore in order to stop the epidemic as soon as possible,” said the Nov. 12 article.
On Dec. 4, the paper saw fit to print an upbeat poem titled “When the Flu’s Flown.”
“Folks will get together, any kind of weather, is my surmise; Churches will be jammed, movies will be crammed, loneliness be slammed – when the flu flies.”
The Latest Statistics from the Wyoming Department of Health:
What to do if you are feeling sick: In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Casper-Natrona County Health Department says that people who are feeling sick or exhibiting symptoms should contact their primary physician.
If you do not have a primary care provider, and live in Natrona County, please contact the COVID-19 hotline, operated by the Casper-Natrona County Department of Health. The line is open Monday – Friday 8:00 am – 5:00 pm 577-9892. Hotline services are intended for Natrona County residents and may not be able to provide specific information to persons calling from out of county.
Officials ask that you please do not self-report to the Emergency Room. Persons experiencing problems breathing should call 9-11.
For general inquiries and non-symptom related questions about COVID-19, please contact the Casper-Natrona County Health Department via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Practice Social Distancing by putting distance between yourself and other people. This is especially important for people who are at higher risk of getting very sick.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick
- Stay home if you’re sick
- Cover coughs and sneezes. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze or use the inside of your elbow.
- Clean AND disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily. This includes tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets, and sinks.
A list of area closures attributed to COVID-19 are available here.