Jim Bradshaw: Coronavirus and the Spanish flu of 1918
It’s inevitable that the current coronavirus outbreak will be compared to the epidemic in 1918, when a strain of “Spanish flu” infected 500 million people worldwide — about one-third of the planet’s population at the time. More than a quarter of the people living in the United States got sick, and 675,000 died. More U.S. soldiers were killed by the flu than died in battle during all of World War I.
The histories are hazy about the exact timing and numbers, but most date the Louisiana outbreak from the first week of September 1918, when a ship from Boston steamed into New Orleans. Fifteen passengers were sick and three had died when the ship docked. By the end of October, 14,000 people in New Orleans had suffered through a bout with the flu and more than 800 had died.
Other south Louisiana towns soon began to feel its effects. Morgan City was one of the first. In early October medical officials there prohibited “public gatherings of any kind” and other parishes and communities soon followed suit.
The St. Landry Clarion reported on October 12 that the outbreak “was not very apparent in Opelousas” but was “sufficient of a menace to cause health authorities to get busy and take precautionary measures.” Following the lead of Morgan City and other communities, “all schools, churches, and picture shows” were closed “for an indefinite period, or until the danger of disease is over.”
Unfortunately, the Clarion noted, “no one knows when that will happen.”
At about the same time, the Crowley Signal reported that more than 2,000 people had the flu in Acadia Parish alone, and that included several doctors. Health officials there were hopeful that “the epidemic is now at its height and will gradually diminish.”
It didn’t diminish right away. Just a week later, the Clarion message was much less optimistic: “There is no let-up in the spread on the ‘flu.’ On the contrary, the malady has spread so rapidly that it said to be epidemic in every state of the union and the number of victims is becoming alarming.”
On Oct. 19, newspapers in Morgan City, Franklin, St. Martinville and elsewhere used big chunks of their front pages to print in its entirety a U.S. Public Health Service bulletin that basically told people to stay away from other people.
The Red Cross sent out a call across Louisiana “urging every nurse, … first aid graduate, and all others who have had any sort of hospital training” to help tend the sick. In several places, the closed schools were turned into makeshift hospitals.
What we are now calling “social distancing” seemed to be the only thing that worked. On November 2 the Clarion was able to report, “The influenza epidemic throughout Louisiana and the other states is reported as waning, so much so that the health authorities feel extremely gratified at the present outlook, and the general public is looking forward to a full resumption of every-day activities. Schools, churches, places of amusement, etc., will reopen very shortly and the handicap people have been laboring under during the prevalence of the malady will soon be forgotten.”
It’s hard to find exactly the number of people who died in Louisiana during that epidemic. Records were poorly kept and many of the flu deaths were attributed to pneumonia. But historian Ann McLaurin did a pretty careful study (“The Influenza Epidemic of 1918 in Shreveport,” North Louisiana Historical Association Journal, Winter 1982) and estimates that there were about 174,000 cases of the flu reported in the state between Sept. 28 and Nov. 5, 1918, with 3,114 deaths.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.