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Before Coronavirus: How Seattle handled the Spanish flu

Over a century ago, my grandmother nearly died from the pandemic. Her doctor wasn’t so lucky.

Stewart and Holmes Wholesale Drug Co. employees on 3rd Avenue during the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic. (University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, submitted by Nicolette Bromberg, Special Collections Visual Materials Curator) University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, submitted by Nicolette Bromberg, Special Collections Visual Materials Curator

…by Knute Berger, Crosscut

Seattle has seen a killer flu before. The Spanish Flu pandemic hit the region hard in the fall of 1918 in a slow-rolling wave that didn’t peter out until March of the following year.

This deadly version of influenza killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people worldwide. Some 25 million Americans came down with it. An incredible 675,000 died as a result.

It was likely brought to Puget Sound through military connections, perhaps by soldiers and sailors exposed to those returning from service in World War I. It first cropped up in Seattle among Navy cadets at the University of Washington, soldiers at Camp Lewis near Tacoma and among shipyard workers in the Bremerton Navy yards. These were also populations that often operated in close quarters, which could have contributed to the spread of disease.

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This article is courtesy of Knute Berger and Crosscut. Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut’s Editor-at-Large and host of the Mossback’s Northwest TV series on KCTS 9. He has written two books, “Pugetopolis” and “Space Needle, Spirit of Seattle.” Email him at knute.berger@ crosscut.com Photo credit: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut.

During the six months it spread through a bustling, burgeoning urban Seattle, the virus killed some 1,400 to 1,600 people, despite public health officials trying to tamp it down by prohibiting public gatherings including church services, vaudeville shows, pool halls and charity fundraisers. Various tactics were applied: A serum was developed and dispensed to shipyard workers helping the war effort. For a time, masks were required in public spaces including on Seattle’s public transit. The city’s schools were intermittently closed. People were encouraged to stay home or to go to the hospital for treatment. The authorities sent mixed signals and received pushback from churches, theater owners and the public who often insisted on milling about on downtown streets if they couldn’t go see a movie or performance. To the confusion of many, people were advised to get fresh air and stay indoors.

An “Influenza Squad” of Seattle police was formed to break up crowds, be they in saloons or soda fountains, and to enforce a ban on spitting by arresting expectorating miscreants. The public was sometimes compliant. One big problem was that folks who had mild cases continued to go about their business spreading the flu to people who would often suffer severe consequences, like pneumonia.

Public health officials and politicians were often overly optimistic about containing the disease. It would seem to fade, then pop up again with renewed fervor. Quarantining sick people seemed to be the most effective action. University of Puget Sound professor Nancy Bristow, who authored the book American Pandemic about the national crisis of the influenza outbreak, concludes that “social distancing,” though very difficult to enforce, was the most effective tool authorities had at their disposal in 1918. By the end of February 1919, the pandemic was largely over.

The crisis impacted my father and his parents, immigrants who were struggling in the growing city. My grandfather, a mechanical engineer from Norway, had to go far afield for work in Alaskan canneries while my Scottish granny took care of my father back in Seattle. They were poor in those early days. A family story has it that my grandparents used to fight over a single hardboiled egg for breakfast, each insisting the other have it. My father suffered some lifelong conditions as a result of poor childhood nutrition.