Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918

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ALBANY, NY (NEWS10) — Imagine a virus killing tens of thousands of people, infection one-third of the world’s population. It has no vaccine to protect people against it and touches every family. Before the coronavirus, the most severe pandemic in recent history occurred in 1918. Many know it as the Spanish Flu.

The headlines back then read, “Hard Drive to Stop Epidemic,” “Children Will be Kept from School,” “City Officials Physicians and Nurses Fight Hard,” and “Albany Churches Close Tomorrow.”

They may sound familiar but those are the headlines from the Flu Pandemic of 1918 ripped from the Knickerbocker and Albany Evening Journal.

Dr. Gus Birkhead, professor emeritus of epidemiology and biostatistics at School of Public Health at UAlbany said, “It was probably one of the biggest public health disasters.”

Albany was hit hard, during the second wave of the pandemic which hit in October of 1918. The city recorded the events in extensive detail. Albany City Historian Tony Opalka dug through some of the material. “1918, the number of diagnosed cases in the city of Albany were over 7,000, and the number of deaths was 420, just in the month of October,” Opalka explained.

One of the deaths that year touched Peg McCloskey’s family. “Five days before Christmas in 1918, my grandfather died with the Spanish Flu,” she said.

William W. Dennin was 61 years old when he died of influenza, altering the course of McCloskey’s family. “My grandmother was left with six children to continue educating,” she said.

As people in the latter half of 1918 struggled through their new normal, the heroes emerged as they do when people need them the most. Opalka explained, “The President of the Common Council loaned his car to bring people to the hospital. And the police department also brought people to the hospital.”

In the Archives of the Albany Medical Center, Jessica Watson carefully handles pieces of history frozen in time. “The hospital was basically working at overcapacity,” Watson said. “There was a shortage of doctors.”

The influenza pandemic wasn’t the only fight going on at the time. We were in the middle of World War I. It was the volunteers and medical students who came to the rescue.

“A lot of students were the ones caring for the sick, they provided on-call service day and night.” Watson added.

Two of those students sacrificing their lives to care for others. Jessica found a message from the Dean of the Medical College after their untimely death. “He gave his life so others might live in this, our common bereavement together is to be proud of his sacrifices,” Jessica read from archived documents.

The records reminding us all, in the age of Corona, we’ve been through this.

Dr. Dennis Metzger, a professor and chair of the Department of Immunology and Microbial Diseases at Albany Medical College explained, “back then they didn’t know what they were dealing with.”

Much of the response looked the same, with workers masked, schools closed, and the need for fresh air. Though there were a few noteworthy differences. Opalka said, “It only lasted about a month before they started to ease restrictions.”

That’ right, it was not a year-long shutdown ordeal. Dr. Metzger also added, “Eventually they were able to control the infection through isolation primarily. There was no vaccine.”

Even though social distancing hadn’t entered the lexicon yet, Dr. Birkhead described, “Isolation and quarantining was well-known activity back then. It’s something we are still doing today.”

By mid-October of that year, there were fewer new cases in the city. As the health of the city improved, caution was still the word. However, big gatherings managed to resume and the “remote learning” of the past, which amounted to lesson plans printed in the newspapers eventually came to a stop. Schools would open up by November 11.

“Pandemics are a part of human history. They are not going to go away,” Dr. Metzger reflected.

More than 100 years later as we relive parts of the past, some lessons remain the same.

“The idea of flattening the curve, pushing the curve out, those ideas came from the experience of 1918 to 1919. In retrospect, we can see those that implemented early measures did better,” explained Dr. Birkhead.

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