On Sept. 28, 1918, a group of 200 Montana college students arrived at the Colorado College campus to train for the world war raging in Europe. The same day, a group of 250 Montana students/soldiers arrived at Boulder’s University of Colorado campus.
Tragedy was on the way for Colorado. Two dozen of the students who arrived in Colorado Springs were stricken with Spanish influenza, and 13 were sick in Boulder.
“From these prosperous little cities the disease spread to every part of the great state,” the Colorado State Board of Health later reported.
By the end of November 1918, 37,074 influenza cases had been reported in Colorado. The state’s population was 908,000.
The death days of 1918 again seem fresh. A century ago, state leaders acted aggressively to what a newspaper writer called “invasion by epidemic.” On Oct. 16, 1918, Gov. Julius Gunter banned all gatherings, a move that led to aggrieved protest. How, thousands asked, can the governor demand control over my daily life and decisions?
I’ve listened to outrage over the current controls on gathering. I’ve read letters to the editor that wonder why such strong steps are required in 2020.
Why, readers ask, should society be shut down?
Here’s the answer. Today’s coronavirus, like 1918’s Great Influenza, is a raging beast that feeds on us mingling. In normal times, and those times seem far away, it’s best for us to gather in restaurants and churches and movie theaters and concert halls.
In 1918 and March 2020, it’s best for us to remain apart, preferably by at least six feet. If you don’t worry about catching coronavirus, that’s your business.
But if you catch coronavirus and transmit it to others, that becomes everyone’s business. Imperiling yourself is vastly different than imperiling those who surround you.
“Spanish influenza is a crowd disease,” The Gunnison Times reported in 1918.
So is coronavirus.
Much is different from the 1918 Spanish flu and the 2020 coronavirus.
In 1918, the young were at the greatest risk. I’m still shaken by an Oct. 8, 1918, newspaper account on the death of 8-year-old Loisa Bass, the first victim in Durango. She had been sick four days. She died at her home on 926 Main Ave., her parents by her side.
In later years, researchers theorized older Americans were spared in 1918 because of immunity developed from earlier, weaker versions of the flu virus. The lack of those antibodies often killed the young and strong.
Today, the elderly face the greatest risk.
But this risk from 1918 and 2020 is the same: Gathering together, especially in large groups, can be deadly.
The closing in 1918 of schools, restaurants, theaters and pool halls prevented thousands of deaths. In 1918, the streets of Colorado were strangely empty as fear hovered over the state.
Today, after Gov. Jared Polis’ announcement of a state of emergency, we have returned, in many ways, to the Colorado of 1918.
“The closing order may appear to some to be a radical and harsh precautionary measure,” the governor’s office said in 1918, “but . . . it is the belief . . . a number of lives may be saved.”
Denver leaders reacted slowly to the 1918 crisis, which led to tragedy. In 11 days in November, 109 Denver residents died of influenza while 1,702 new cases were reported. The Great Influenza eventually killed 675,000 Americans, more than the death toll of the Civil War.
In Colorado Springs in 1918, Commissioner of Public Health Perry Botts urged caution after three influenza deaths.
“There is no need to become panicky over the matter,” Botts said. “The thing to do is to keep cool and be careful.”
In Gunnison, county physician Dr. F.P. Hanson took a different stance. He closed the town, erected barricades on the main highways and installed warning signs on other roads. The message: If you stop here, we will quarantine you for two days. If you enter our town and seek to avoid quarantine, you will be arrested.
Hanson was especially worried about rail visitors from Denver, connected to Gunnison by rail.
“Any person may leave the county at his will; none may return except those who will go into voluntary quarantine,” said Hanson. Violators would be “dealt with to the fullest extent of the law, and to this we promise our personal attention.”
He meant his words. A car from Nebraska with two riders sought to evade the barricades and quarantine. They were arrested and jailed.
Upon release, the motorists departed a town of 1,329 that, according to the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, did not suffer a death from the sweeping horror of The Great Influenza.
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