A look back on the pandemic which struck the world 102 years ago: Spanish Influenza, Part II

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two part story about the 1918 influenza pandemic. Local information about the pandemic was gathered with the help of the Dawson County Historical Museum.

LEXINGTON —The severeness of the influenza pandemic began to slowly dawn on people. The deaths of so many could not be so easily excused, especially the deaths of those young adults, who seemed to be in the prime of life.

A student nurse, Helen L. McElhiney, who had graduated from Lexington High School in 1915 and was working in Rock Springs, Wyo., when, “she was stricken with the deadly malady, Spanish influenza, which in a few days, developed into pneumonia and was followed later by her passing away,” according to her obituary in the Dawson County Herald.

The pandemic began to affect local functions in Lexington, including the courts and jury selection.

In an article titled, “Jurors are excused until Jan. 7, 1919,” it said Judge H. M. Grimes ordered, “due to the busy season for farm work and by reason of the prevailing epidemic, I deem it expedient to not call jurors for the sitting of the court for Nov. 11, 1918.”

One ad in the paper hailed a new way to fight the virus, Vick’s VapoRub.

The ad optimistically stated, “The influenza germs attack the lining of the air passages. When VapoRub is applied over the throat and chest, the medicated vapors loosen the phlegm, open the air passages and stimulate the mucous membrane to throw off the germs.”

In a tragically ironic statement the ad also stated, “There is no occasion for panic, influenza itself has a very low percentage of fatalities.”

Yet the papers couldn’t ignore the number of people who were dying due to the disease. One short item stated grimly, “The Spanish flu is claiming many victims in this part of Nebraska, quite a number of cases terminating fatally.”

In November 1918, after the ending of World War I and the surrender of Germany, despite the pandemic, people couldn’t help but gather and celebrate.

A November issue of the Dawson County Herald stated, “The prevalence of the ‘flu’ cut no figure in the celebrations held in Nebraska last Monday over the defeat of the Kaiser and the ending of the war, crowds gathered in every town and showed their joy and gladness, regardless of the prevailing epidemic.”

The gatherings may have proven deadly because people continued to perish around the county.

In late November, the Dawson County Herald, announced with “severe shock,” the death of a young doctor, Floyd H. Welden of Gothenburg.

Welden was only 29-years-old at the time of his death, “he was stricken with the disease, (Spanish Influenza) just a week preceding his death…although it was known he was seriously ill, the announcement of his death was a severe shock to the young man’s many friends in both the city and county in general.”

As fall turned to winter, the flu pandemic still had its grip on the area, with locals forced to continue measures to prevent its spread.

In the Nov. 22 edition of the Herald, one article titled, “The Flu Ban still on,” read in part, “A special meeting of the Lexington school board was held this morning to consider the advisability of opening the city schools. After discussing the matter at some length it was deemed best not to do so at the present.”

The article stated the board of health was of the opinion to reopen the schools, but the school board decided against it for another week.

It was in early December when the Lexington school board decided to reopen the schools, as there were reports, “that the influenza was subsiding to such an extent that it was deemed safe to start the schools.”

Also, “the ban on theaters, public meetings, churches, lodges and other gatherings became effective last Monday, and now all restraints are removed.”

The article concluded, “It is to be hoped the malady has left us for good.”

This attitude, along with the lift on bans, would prove to be premature.

The decision to lift the bans was almost immediately reconsidered, a December 13 edition of the Dawson County Herald read, “Reports are now to the effect that the Spanish flu is now raging harder than ever in Omaha, and it is probable that the lid will again be put on.”

The article continued, “The public schools are but half attended, parents refusing to let their children go in consequence of the prevalence of the dread disease. It is charged that the pressure brought to bear by some of the business men and proprietors of play houses was sufficient to overcome the better judgment of the city’s health authorities who reluctantly removed the ban.”

The influenza was not gone, as some people had desperately hoped, not only that, it was said to be on the increase once again. By late December it seemed people were fully realizing the scope of the disease.

An article titled, “Influenza said to be on the increase, Lexington’s city schools again closed – many new cases,” stated, “The great war just closed caused a casualty list of Americans of a quarter of a million. The victims of the deadly flu so far in the United States are reported to number fully twice as many. The war is over, but the flu is still in active operation and claiming its thousands every day.”

After prematurely lifting the closure of the schools, the 1918 Lexington school board made the decision to close down schools until the first of the new year of 1919. The city council also met in a special meeting where Mayor Cook again placed a ban on churches, theatres, lodges and other public gatherings.

At this point in late 1918, the state of Nebraska was considering strict quarantine for influenza cases.

“The widespread epidemic of influenza which covers all portions of Nebraska and which has resulted in so many fatalities, cause the State Board of Health to call for a meeting of several health officers of the state to held in Lincoln,” a December Dawson County Herald article stated.

“The subject causing the greatest discussion was that of quarantine, members’ believing that simply placarding the house where flu patients were located was insufficient and argued for complete quarantine as for smallpox,” the article continued, “others claimed it could not be successfully done owing to lack of prominent diagnostic symptoms; and also that where, as in some localities, the epidemic was mild, it would be a hardship in these particular localizes.”

After the lethal second wave in late 1918, new cases dropped abruptly, theories abound as to why. Some think doctors became more effective in treatment and prevention. Other say the virus rapidly mutated to a deadly strain, mutated again just as quick to something less lethal.

In some ways, historians argue the Spanish flu is a, “forgotten,” pandemic. With it coming on the heels of the World War I, many people read obituaries of people killed by the war and killed by the flu side by side and might have simply considered the disease an extension of the war.

Another reason put forth is the spotty media coverage, while the flu was detected in early 1918, coverage in the media and newspapers did not start until later, if it started at all.

In Lexington’s case, the first mention of the disease in the papers was Oct. 11, 1918, and then treating it as an enemy plot or seasonal sickness, not realizing how serious it was to become.

Around 675,000 people in the United States perished from the pandemic, more than the total number of Americans killed during the Civil War.

In some ways the flu taking place in tandem with the war could have led to people not focusing on it, or conversely, the deaths of so many were so shocking, families formed unspoken agreements to not discuss it. The trauma of the event lingered under the surface of society.

Later research has discovered the flu killed so many young healthy adults, because they were young healthy adults. The virus was found to trigger a, “cytokine storm.” When a young person’s immune system detected the virus it triggered a massive inflammatory response, but rather than neutralizing the virus, it filled the lungs with fluid, preventing the absorption of oxygen with death following soon.

The 1918 influenza pandemic offers us glimpses of how the local area responded and offers a guide for how to deal with the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Voluntary quarantines, banning public gatherings and maintaining good hygiene are just some of the ways prevention can be done.

History shows pandemics come and pandemics go, but it is up to the people who live through them to take responsibility and follow established health guidelines to ensure not only their health, but of those around them.

It truly takes a village.

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