Inside the pages of a 102-year-old old newspaper, between an advertisement for cream caramels for sale at the P. Simeone and Co. drugstore in Andover and an exhortation to buy Fighting Fourth Liberty Bonds, is advice eerily relevant today.
“It is especially necessary at this time that any persons caring for the sick should be supplied with masks,” John N. Cole, then-chairman of the Andover Public Safety Committee, said in a notice placed in The Andover Townsman newspaper. He suggested eating on paper plates that “must be burned as soon as they are used,” before acknowledging that, yes, it may be difficult to find those masks locally.
That was early October 1918. The town was deep into efforts to arrest the spread of influenza. As Gail Ralston detailed nearly a century later in a column for the Andover Center for History and Culture, the town's Board of Health had already moved to close schools by that point, as well as the town’s movie house and public library.
Illness was spreading everywhere. On Sept. 21, 11 nurses at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport had been reported sick from what was would become known as the Spanish flu. Three days later, one of them, Zelda Saunders, died. It was the same day the city closed its schools. “This is Newburyport, slow to respond to the pandemic, suddenly realizing the magnitude of the crisis,” wrote Bethany Groff Dorau, regional manager for Historic New England, in a recent column. “This feels, to me, like today.”
And not just there, of course. As with influenza 102 years ago, COVID-19 caught one community after the next ill-prepared for rapid outbreak of infectious disease. Now, it seems, we must reeducate ourselves about the importance of public health and investing in parts of our government that might seem superfluous until real crisis is upon us.
To this point, the coronavirus and the disease it causes are nowhere near as devastating as the 1918-1919 flu, which killed between 50 million and 100 million people worldwide, depending upon the estimate. Forecasts for the coronavirus are all over the map, but as of now the global death toll exceeds 60,000, though is rising sharply.
The basic response to both have been much the same, however, in terms of containment, tracking the spread of disease and interrupting its transmission from individual to individual
“The lessons we learned from 1918 are ones we are relearning a century later,” Dr. Howard Koh, former state health commissioner in Massachusetts and assistant secretary for health and human services during the Obama administration, said recently. Koh, of Andover, pointed to the importance of social distancing during the 1918-1919 flu outbreak and how early action was shown to reduce the overall number of deaths from one location to the next.
The pandemic of a century ago also illustrates the importance of quarantining the sick. The flu’s vast spread then was attributed to the movement of soldiers and sailors deploying to fight World War I, and of crowded tenements and the close quarters of places like the textile mills of Lawrence.
Then, as now, the efforts of doctors, nurses and others involved in treating the sick were absolutely essential — as were efforts to protect them from themselves becoming sick. Not only must our communities be ready, our hospitals must have adequate supplies of protective equipment, a now-painful reality in the context of COVID-19.
The world of the coronavirus is a starkly different one than it was a century ago. Our planet is home to 6 billion more people, never mind the vast differences of technology, industry and society. Still, there’s more to be gained in comparing today’s conditions to those of 1918-1919 pandemic than a mere thought exercise.
The pages of history illustrate the need to act quickly and decisively, to quarantine the sick, to protect our health care workers, and to keep our distance in order to stop the spread of disease.