KEVIN LEININGER: Think we’ve never been through an ordeal quite like this? Think again

A trolley conductor in Seattle refused to let passengers on without a mask during the 1918 influenza outbreak. Fort Wayne streetcars were disinfected daily by city order. (National Archives photo)
1918 Influenza patients had to post this sign on their residence. (Photo courtesy Allen County Department of Health)
Mindy Waldron
The city Health Department order closing various facilities in 1918. (Courtesy Allen County Department of Health)
Dr. Eric Crull, health commissioner in 1918 (photo courtesy the History Center)
Kevin Leininger

Businesses, churches and schools ordered to close. People advised to wear protective masks, clean thoroughly and maintain a safe distance between each other. Residents of Fort Wayne have never had to endure so much to defeat a deadly enemy they couldn’t see, smell or touch. Right?

Nope. History reveals how the city’s strategy to defeat COVID-19 is remarkably similar — with some very notable exceptions — to its response to the influenza of 1918, which ultimately killed 20 million people worldwide, including about 700,000 in the United States and 9,000 in Indiana.

“They wanted to get out in front of it and closed public places, which is why the rate was lower in Fort Wayne than other cities in Indiana,” said Allen County Health Department Administrator Mindy Waldron, who is something of an historian when it comes to the “Spanish Flu.” Although records are incomplete, it is believed about 91 Fort Wayne residents died from all forms of influenza and pneumonia in 1918, a rate of about 114 for every 100,000 people. Indianapolis, which Waldron said also took a proactive approach, had a death rate of 151.6 per 100,000. But Northwest Indiana was not so fortunate. In Gary, for example, 218 people succumbed to influenza and pneumonia — a death rate of nearly 727 per 100,000. And, unlike COVID-19, the 1918 influenza especially targeted the young, between 18 and 44.

The strategy Fort Wayne employed 102 years ago should induce a strong sense of deja vu. On Oct. 6, 1918, according to records provided by Waldron, city Health Commissioner Dr. Eric Crull acted on a state directive and issued an order closing “all schools, churches, theaters and places of amusement.” A week later the board advised doctors to protect themselves with gauze masks and, on Dec. 15, City Council and Mayor W. Sherman Cutshall followed with an ordinance expanding Crull’s closure list while adding exceptions that sound as contemporary as today’s headlines.

“A serious epidemic (is) endangering health and lives . . . and may, unless strict quarantine regulations are put in force and and public gatherings prevented or limited, kill hundreds more,” Cutshall’s proclamation stated. But the ordinance also allowed schools to operate if people remained at least six feet apart — “social distancing,” in other words. Similar exemptions were provided in other areas, too: No more than five people could gather at an ice cream counter; theaters could operate at no more than 50 percent capacity; bowling alleys and pool halls had to prohibit spectators or loitering; and worshipers were to sit in alternating pews and maintain a distance of at least two feet. The ordinance also set out various standards for cleaning, including daily disinfection of streetcars.

What’s more, government’s approach in 1918 was in many ways even more Draconian than its current counterpart. Violating Cutshall’s ordinance, for example, could result in a $300 fine, three months in jail, or both. A 7 p.m. curfew was imposed on anyone under 15 not unaccompanied by a parent. And, most significantly of all, houses containing an influenza patient had to be conspicuously marked with a placard provided by the health department.

Such notices were meant to alert and protect the public, but Waldron said local officials couldn’t repeat the tactic today even if they wanted to because of privacy laws. But she’s not convinced such an approach would be helpful in any case because COVID-19 can be spread even by people who show no symptoms, through the air or contact with hard surfaces.

If you’re wondering how long you’ll have to live under virtual house arrest, 1918 offers a clue there as well. Waldron said the Health Department did not rescind its closure notice until Dec. 31, 1918 — nearly three months after it was imposed. Gov. Eric Holcomb’s stay-at-home order is not even one month old.

But if that’s one reason to hope history does not repeat itself, here’s one to hope it does: Despite the 1918 influenza’s economic impact, which was especially devastating in places that did not aggressively limit its spread, it did not produce long-term financial calamity. In fact, the outbreak was followed by a period so prosperous it is known as the “Roaring ’20s” — a decade in which the American economy grew by 42 percent and stock prices rose an average of 20 percent per year.

Of course, much of Wall Street’s giddiness was due to the practice of buying stocks “on margin,” borrowing 80 percent of the purchase price. So long as the good times rolled, everybody profited. When the debt-ridden house of cards finally collapsed in 1929, the Great Depression followed.

America’s national debt that year was about $17 billion. It’s more than $24 trillion today — and that doesn’t count the COVID-19 relief check you and millions more should see in the mail very soon. Enjoy.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.


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