Five lessons from the 1918-1919 pandemic that apply to the coronavirus outbreak today
AZTEC — “Don’t loiter or congregate in groups. Transact your business and then move on.”
Those words were written in the Farmington Times-Hustler — the predecessor of The Daily Times — on Jan. 30, 1919, as the Spanish influenza overwhelmed the healthcare system.
The Spanish influenza of 1918 and 1919 — a bird flu that likely did not originate in Spain, despite its name — infected approximately a third of the world's population and led to an estimated 675,000 deaths in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Overall, the estimated death rate was 2.5% of the people who caught the illness.
New Mexico, which lacked a public health department at the time, was unprepared for the illness. However, Farmington and Aztec saw fewer deaths than other communities in the state.
“The epidemic so far took a death toll of eleven, with three deaths from other causes, and many familiar faces will be missed from our midst,” the Times-Hustler reported on Feb. 6, 1919.
The Times-Hustler was referring to Farmington residents who died of the illness and did not include people like Laughlin McNamee, a 21-year-old La Plata resident who died Nov. 23, 1918 after being sick for a few days.
Nor did the Times-Hustler include numbers for how many Navajo Nation residents, including people in Shiprock, died from the illness. However, the Times-Hustler reported that the Navajos had more cases and more deaths than Farmington saw.
In November 1918, the Times-Hustler wrote that the Spanish flu had taught the community severe lessons.
Some of these lessons can be applied to the coronavirus pandemic currently sweeping across the country.
1. Social distancing is necessary to prevent the spread of the disease
Before there was a case of Spanish influenza in Farmington, the mayor issued a quarantine order in conjunction with Aztec and San Juan County. This quarantine remained in effect from Oct. 10, 1918 to Dec. 5, 1918. It prohibited public schools and even church gatherings.
The Farmington Times-Hustler reported that the quarantine prevented the initial scourge of deaths that nearby communities, including Durango, Colorado, experienced.
When a second wave of influenza hit the community, local leaders once again initiated a quarantine order to prevent the spread.
2. An organized state response is essential
New Mexico did not have a health department in 1918, which made it hard to coordinate a statewide response to the pandemic.
At the end of November 1918, prior to the second wave of influenza, the Times-Hustler reported that the incomplete data indicated 20,000 cases of influenza statewide and 2,000 deaths.
"We will never know how many of these friends, relatives and fellow citizens of ours were sacrificed as a result of the lack of an official health organization linking up the counties and towns of our state for efficient health protection and the prevention of disease," the Times-Hustler reported on Nov. 28, 1918.
The state is much better prepared now than it was a century ago. The New Mexico Department of Health is issuing statewide guidance and local emergency responders have practiced for a pandemic.
3. Young people are not immune from disease
One difference between the current coronavirus pandemic and the Spanish flu of 1918 is the age groups that have higher fatality rates. Many of the people who died of the flu in Farmington were young people.
And 37-year-old Arthur Edgar, "a quiet, industrious and conscientious young man whose life was exemplary," died Feb. 1, 1919, at his sister's house on the mesa, the Times-Hustler reported.
Prior to Edgar's death, 19-year-old Juanita Clark died in January 1919 of influenza.
While the coronavirus is not impacting young people quite as severely as it is older residents, people of all ages can catch COVID-19.
A report issued last week by the Centers for Disease Control stated that 20% of the coronavirus patients who have needed hospitalization in the United States have been between 20 and 44 years old.
4. Pandemics overwhelm healthcare
The flu overwhelmed the healthcare system in Farmington and nurses traveled from Aztec, Durango and Cedar Hill to help.
In November 1918, a nurse from Pennsylvania named Sarah Mumma arrived to help treat patients at the Carriso Mission in Arizona where there had been a large number of deaths, according to the Times-Hustler.
School teachers like Ethel Kirk and Eunice Newton volunteered with the Red Cross to work as nurses.
5. A second wave could come
The Farmington community thought the pandemic had passed. December came along and the number of cases slowed. The community reopened. People began gathering for church services and school.
Then a second wave of influenza hit.
“The disease appears to be more virulent than the first epidemic in October,” the Times-Hustler editor and publisher William Butler wrote.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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