May 18, 2020 Moonshine Minutes
You’ve probably heard that history repeats itself, and in the case of today’s coronavirus crisis, we can look back just over 100 years ago to Truckee’s first major medical crisis involving a pandemic. I’m Alex Hoeft, news reporter for the Ink reporting today’s Moonshine Minutes.
The Spanish influenza, which wreaked havoc back in 1918-1919, killed at least 21 million people. More than 600,000 Americans died — 33,000 alone in New York City, and it was estimated that about 2% of the entire American Indian population was lost.
That flu, by the way, didn’t actually originate out of Spain, and less than 260,000 people in Spain died from it. Spanish journalists weren’t censored during World War I and ended up being some of the only media reporting on the flu outbreak. Thus, the Spanish flu.
There are absolutely similarities between how the Spanish influenza was handled 100 years ago, and how officials are reacting to COVID-19 today.
By the time news of the Spanish flu virus reached Truckee on Oct. 24, 1918, Dr. George W. Bryant had already issued a request on Oct. 17 to close all public gatherings, including schools.
The newspaper published warnings that people should “keep out of crowded places, avoid persons who cough, wash hands before eating, stay outdoors as much as possible and don’t use a common drinking cup.” Masks for “influenza prevention” were sold at the local drug store.
There are articles in which the mask was declared to be the “only safe method to stop” the influenza spread. The U.S. Public Health Service also issued an Official Health Bulletin the same day that schools and gatherings closed with the latest word on the subject, Uncle Sam’s Advice on Flu, which included answers to questions like How can ‘Spanish influenza’ be recognized?, What is the course of the disease?, Do people die of it?, and What causes the disease and how is it spread?
Despite all the warnings and precautions, the flu virus hit Truckee like a runaway train. Entire families were afflicted and many died. In one week alone, there were 42 new cases in town (the population was much lower than it is today). The total number of deaths in Truckee is not known, but, according to old-timers, more people in town died from this epidemic than from any other single event in the town’s history. It didn’t help that there were only two doctors in town at the time and one small hospital, and that by January 1919, one of Truckee’s most severe winters had set in.
Today, scientists are still trying to piece together the reasons why global flu epidemics occur every 30 years or so. Studies indicate that the 1918 flu virus was exceptionally “virulent” because it underwent several sudden and dramatic mutations in its structure. Such mutations can turn flu into a killer because the victims’ immune systems have no antibodies to fight off the altered virus. Many predict that another lethal plague of flu could erupt again at any time.
However, Truckee is fortunate to have grown from a two-doctor town to a small city with a modern regional hospital with many practicing physicians. Our local doctors might be further encouraged by recalling the pioneer spirit of the town’s early heroic physicians, who battled endless blizzards and deep snows in subzero weather to reach the injured and suffering. They did so often knowing that their only payment would be the satisfaction of doing their duty.
Guy Coates, a former author with the Truckee-Donner Historical Society, originally documented this tidbit of history in the early 2000s, and it has been added to with further research and analysis of how the reaction compares to today’s coronavirus pandemic by Heidi Sproat, currently of the TDHS. Be sure to grab Moonshine’s latest print edition, out on stands today, to read the full article: The Great Plague of 1918 Hit Truckee Like a Runaway Train.
And to those history buffs out there, volunteer with the Truckee-Donner Historical and Railroad Societies by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 582-0893.