U.S. Towns affected by influenza 1918

While the influenza epidemic spread throughout Europe, it didn’t reach the United States until Spring 1918.  As troops came home from World War I, cases began to appear throughout the United States.

Communities were greatly affected by the outbreak, as schools, churches, theaters and stores were shut down.  Often stores required customers leave their orders outside.

 In Washington, D.C., William Sardo said, “It kept people apart…You had no school life, you had no church life, you had nothing…It completely destroyed all family and community life…The terrifying aspect was when each day dawned you didn’t know whether you would be there when the sun set that day.”

In Philadelphia, some cases were popping up through the Philadelphia Navy Yard. Within days, 600 sailors had the virus. 

The town looked forward to celebrating the Liberty Loan Parade, in late September 1918. Within six weeks, more than 12,000 people died with approximately 47,000 reported cases.

This became one of the hardest hit US Cities, which also had contributing conditions of high population and poor working and living conditions.  This is an example of one reason it is important to cancel mass gatherings and prevent the spread of the disease.

Many towns saw a shortage of doctors, as the physicians became too ill to care for their patients. Makeshifts hospitals often had to be made. Many towns did not have hospitals, and if they did the hospital couldn’t hold everyone.  Private homes, schools, churches and other buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals.  In some areas, medical students cared for those who were ill.

Some victims died within hours of the first symptoms.

Fear ran rampant, as no one knew what to expect.

In Goldsboro, North Carolina, Dan Tonkel recalled, “We were actually almost afraid to breathe…You were afraid even to go out…The fear was so great people were actually afraid to leave their homes…afraid to talk to one another.”

St. Louis took preventative measures early, resulting in a very low fatality rate.  While San Francisco enforced the wearing of mask and those not wearing it or wearing it improperly were fined $5.  {about $85 in 2020}

Bodies began to pile up in cemeteries, overwhelmed with the death toll.  Often family members had to dig their relative’s graves. Mass graves were often dug by steam shovels and some towns buried their dead without coffins.

Sickness and death created a shortage in farm work, affecting the summer harvest, and at factories.

Public health officials longed to keep morale up and began to lie about the virus and how widespread it might be, and steps taken. Many officials stated, “there was no cause for alarm if precautions are taken.”

The public began to fear the unknown. An internal American Red Cross report concluded, “A fear and panic of the influenza, akin to the terror of the Middle Ages regarding the Black Plague, [has] been prevalent in many parts of the country.”

So, what effect did this outbreak have on The Great War?

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