FLU EPIDEMIC HIT UTAH HARD IN 1918, 1919

Published: Tuesday, March 28 1995 12:00 a.m. MST

The headline: "Many towns are closed by order of health board; Theaters, churches and all public gatherings under ban for present; Spanish influenza rapidly spreading." - Deseret News, Oct. 10, 1918.

World War I was ending, but another scourge, influenza, stood in the wings as if waiting specifically to stymy the world's search for long-awaited peace.Spanish influenza, so called because 8 million people in that country suffered its ravages, was spreading its tentacles into most of the nations of the globe.

In September 1918, with the Allies nearing victory over the Central Powers, the virus spread to China, Africa, Brazil and the South Pacific, infecting millions.

Soldiers returning from the front brought it to the U.S. Midwest. Then from Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the disease spread until all of the country, including Utah, was in the grip of the worst pandemic since the Black Death (bubonic plague) of the 1400s. Over the next year, a fifth of the world's population suffered. More than 21 million died, including 675,000 Americans - 10 times as many as died in the world war.

More than half of the U.S. soldiers who died in Europe succumbed to the virus and not to enemy action. Tens of thousands of military deaths resulted from a virus so small that 30 million could fit on the head of a pin.

In Salt Lake City, LDS faithful were gathered for regular semiannual conference meetings when the first signs of the outbreak were reported on Oct. 3. Within four weeks, more than 1,500 cases had been documented, with 117 deaths, and the numbers continued to grow, spreading from the urban centers to virtually every community in the state.

Health officials marshaled their forces for the battle. In Ogden, with both local hospitals full, the LDS 3rd Ward amusement hall became a temporary care center. Myrtle Swainston, a recent graduate of LDS Hospital School of Nursing in Salt Lake City, took charge. Her salary and the costs of the emergency hospital were shared by the American Red Cross, Ogden City and Weber County.

Miss Swainston had her work cut out for her. The day after her arrival, Ogden had 40 new cases. With a few hospital beds from Fort Douglas and donated sheets, blankets and other items, she coped. Over the course of the outbreak, several hospitals expanded or set up services in public buildings, including churches. The Judge Memorial Hospital in Salt Lake City, which had been closed a short time earlier, reopened to make room for the ill.

Not all health officials were agreed as to how the epidemic should be handled. The state health department order to close all public places was "absolutely ridiculous and absurd. Such an action can be merely due to hysteria" for a disease no more threatening than the measles, said Salt Lake Health Director Samuel G. Paul.

But by the time the flu had run its course, thousands of Utahns were dead - about 4 percent of all those who contracted the disease. Utah was third, behind Colorado and Pennsylvania, in the rate of deaths.

Twila Peck, now 89, recalls the outbreak in the Tintic Mining District. Her father was stricken and her mother nursed him back to health. Other family members escaped, but she remembers looking through a neighbor's window to see a young mother with her infant, both "laid out" in the living room awaiting burial.

"We had to play by ourselves, and if we went anywhere, we wore masks," Peck said.

As it became apparent the epidemic was going to leave no Utah community untouched, local officials set down stringent rules. Stricken homes had to display large quarantine signs.

Gauze masks, provided by the health department, were to be worn in the sick room and when in public. Streetcar conductors were instructed to limit the number of riders. Stores couldn't hold sales, and funeral services were limited to a half hour, later reduced to 15 minutes, and no more than three vehicles could accompany the hearse to a burial place.

LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith died in November 1918, and his funeral also was restricted to a handful of family members.

As conditions worsened, the rules were more vigorously enforced. A barber who refused to wear a mask was fined $10. Police arrested the proprietor of a soft drink establishment at 547 W. 200 South, along with seven card-playing customers. A farewell party for one Salt Laker was raided, and all 16 present would have been nabbed if five had not bolted out a back door. The city put on 100 extra officers to enforce the flu rules.

A local newspaper reporter commented on the eerie sense of desertion on downtown Salt Lake streets. Along eight blocks of Main Street he spotted one human wearing a mask - a guard checking business doors - and two black cats.

But the ban on public assemblies was hard to enforce when news of the Nov. 11 armistice ending the war was announced. People "went mad" in the streets of Utah's communities, restrictions or no. Health officials tried to cancel parades, but city officials insisted. Influenza cases were on the decline anyway, they argued.

After the "happy chaos" of Armistice Day, flu took hold again, and the dispensations that had been allowed as the disease declined were replaced with even tougher guidelines.

The nursing shortage was so acute that the Red Cross asked local businesses to allow employees to have a day off if they would volunteer at hospitals during the night.

Whiskey, considered one of the more effective remedies, was hard to come by. The states were then in the process of ratifying the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing alcohol. Liquor was contraband. But some officials released whiskey to medical personnel for use as medicine.

One Ogden man who went to court inebriated tried to convince the judge he was only trying to fend off the "influenzy." But the judge decided the dosage was overlarge and sentenced the man to a $50 fine or 30 days in jail.

Liquor aside, the usual treatment was bed rest in a cool room, plenty of liquids and hot packs to break up chest congestion. Vicks VapoRub was in such demand across the country that it became hard to find. Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root was offered as a curative for the kidneys after an attack of "the grip," and Eatonic could help millions suffering the aftereffects of flu by removing acidity and poisons, its makers advertised.

Panguitch, the last Utah town to be struck, held out until a returning soldier brought the virus home with him and shared it with others at a homecoming party. Even the small community of Escalante reported 200 cases at one point.

In Blanding, the local store owner was stricken and his family made the key available to needy shoppers, who promised to take only what they needed and pay for it when he was up and about again. Everywhere, church members and community groups all rallied to help one another through the height of the epidemic.

Ogden and Park City tried to confine the disease by requiring that anyone entering their towns have a certificate signed by a doctor assuring that they showed no sign of flu. Railroads were warned not to accept passengers who had no such certificate, and masks were to be worn by those who were allowed in.

State health director T.B. Beatty huffed off to Ogden to plead for a more rational approach, but after a meeting with government and health officials he returned to Salt Lake with nothing accomplished.

The epidemic played hob with the 1918 fall elections as would-be officials were stymied by their inability to meet with voters. Many simply quit campaigning.

Particularly hard hit were Indian reservations. An estimated 2,000 Navajo Indians in southern Utah and northern Arizona died, and 62 deaths were recorded on the Uintah Reservation, including Ute Chief Atchee. In the four-corner states, Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, 3,293 American Indians died. Their natural outdoor lives that exposed them to the elements, along with failure to understand health precautions, contributed to the rate.

A solar eclipse earlier that summer was blamed by many Indians, who saw it as an omen of a challenging time to come. Some white people, on the other hand, tended to blame the epidemic on the "smoke and fumes" generated by the war.

Christmas 1918 gave the epidemic a fresh start as groups gathered to celebrate the holiday. In Salt Lake City, 106 new cases were reported, with 46 in Ogden.

In January, the return of the 145th Light Field Artillery Regiment, composed primarily of Utah boys, was another temptation for people to gather. The regiment had seen no action, although it had been in France. Its only casualties were 14 flu-related deaths.

But Utahns were caught up in the post-war fever and despite discouragement from health officials, they again lined streets in Ogden, Logan and Salt Lake City to greet the returning warriors. A new outbreak of the flu followed within a few days.

In the spring of 1919, the epidemic began to wind down, although there was another, less lethal, surge of the disease that winter. From September 1918 to June 1919, Utah registered 2,343 deaths from flu. In 1919, the state had the second highest death rate from the disease in the country, with 180.2 deaths per 100,000 population. The only state that exceeded that rate was South Carolina with 189.3.

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