Masks and quarantines: Spanish Flu to COVID-19

During my last in-person visit with Mom, prior to the current ban on visitors, I likened aspects of today’s situation to her growing up during World War II and the Depression. While circumstances and details are vastly different, I related to her how daily life was changed and people made sacrifices then, as now. Although she has low vision and hearing, and dementia, she followed my explanation clearly. She added that this “virus worry” was unlike anything she remembered in her now 87 years. That was almost three weeks ago, and like so many – while I grieve that I cannot see my mom in person, I appreciate those working hard to keep her and fellow residents healthy. I grieve even more for our healthcare workers fighting at “the front lines” without proper support, and others dying alone, without loved ones.

For me, the first frightening global concerns I remember well (less aware of Vietnam at the time) date back to worries about the Cold War. In college I remember being freaked out, especially after watching the movie “The Day After.” More recently, very real concerns about the impact of climate change filter in and out of my consciousness. Our daughters, now in their mid and late 20s, can’t remember a time when they weren’t both fearful about climate change. And yet, this COVID-19 pandemic no longer “floats in and out” as it is changing everything about our daily lives and plans for our immediate future.

In a previous blog I wrote about our grandfather’s efforts to rent out books from his grandfather J.K. Gill’s store to summer vacationers in Ocean Park, Washington during World War I. While my parents weren’t alive during the American Influenza (sometimes called Spanish) Epidemic of 1918-19, my grandparents were. And whereas my grandfather at that time was a young man having recently graduated from Portland’s Lincoln High School, J.K. Gill was older – 77 to be exact.

Our mom embarked on a genealogy quest in the 1990’s: meticulously curating volumes containing our dad’s Montgomery and Gill family history in a way Dad would never have had the patience for. She hurried herself along, knowing her macular degeneration would progress and prevent her from completing detailed work in the future. One of the documents she secured (thank you Katie Barker) was a typed but unpublished copy of a diary J.K. Gill kept.

J.K. was born in Holmfirth, Yorkshire, England in 1841 and died in Portland, Oregon in 1930.

I refer to this diary briefly in My Music Man, sharing a paragraph about a particularly cold winter with the Columbia River frozen solid. I have read through it before, single phrases, sentences and short accounts – much of it about weather and business at the J.K. Gill Store. This week I was intrigued to look back through it for specific notes about difficult times during World War I and the Spanish Influenza. Here are a few:

Dec. 16th, 1914: Germans shell towns N.E. Coast of England
Feb. 2, 1915: Greatly distressed about money matters.
Feb. 24: Greatly depressed. Disappointed about money matters at Bank. Too great expense, too large stock.
March 31: Fiscal year ends. Had much anxiety and disappointment. Too much expense. Too much stock.
May 6: Lusitania torpedoed. Many people died.
July 24: Visited Doernbecher’s Saw Mill. Great steamboat accident in Chicago. Over 1000 drowned.
March 31, 1916: Last day of our fiscal year. Results for the year are disappointing. Our large volume of business should earn greater profits.
March 17, 1917: Railroad strike threatened.
March 18: Strike called off. Three American Ships sunk by Germans.
April 5: Congress votes to declare war on Germany.
June 20: On account of unusual snow in mountains very high water predicted all through the Spring.
July 24: Last meeting of NEA Committee. The attendance far below expectations on account of war.
Oct. 11, 1918: City Schools and all public places closed on account of influenza.
Nov. 16: All public places and halls re-opened to day.
Nov. 27: John Gill taken ill very suddenly.
Dec. 13: Kate sick with influenza – Jack with us.
Jan. 28, 1919: H.L. Pittock died leaving all his millions behind him.

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish flu at a hospital ward at Camp Funston. Public Domain. From Wikipedia

The first reported case of the dreaded “Spanish” Influenza (in Oregon) was a young solder traveling through Portland from Camp Lewis, Washington to Texas. He was examined at Portland City Hospital, diagnosed with influenza, and sent by ambulance to the military hospital at the Vancouver Barracks. A few days later cases showed up at Benson Polytechnic School (newly located at NE 12th & Hoyt) among an army training class of student-soldiers housed in Portland’s commercial district. This led to what was then recognized as a major public health crisis, placing the school under quarantine, preventing uniformed army personnel from attending local entertainment, and isolating identified cases. Although local officials hoped quarantine and other measures would protect Portland, an epidemic appears to have been expected.

On October 6, the Portland Health Officer (Dr. George H. Parrish) helped to develop a campaign with tips on flu prevention and treatment to show as ads before movies. As with COVID-19, early symptoms were mistaken for the common cold and created confusion. Not long after, and a bit ironically to me, Dr. Parrish cancelled his planned trip to Chicago to attend the annual conference of the American Public Health Association so that he could remain in Portland. In these early days of the epidemic, he had no way of knowing how widespread the epidemic would become as Influenza was not yet a reported disease (prior illness known by many as “old-fashioned grippe”). True to today, there was some disagreement between Portland elected officials and this medical expert about how seriously to take the issue: was it really worth closing up businesses and schools?

For those interested in following the details of this epidemic’s move through Portland, a fascinating and strangely reminiscent account is available from the Influenza Encyclopedia, a product of University of Michigan Library. Soon after, Portland Mayor George Lucas Baker closed Portland public gatherings in Portland, and the state Board of Health ordered all Oregon communities to do the same, even though the United States Public Health Service was slower to act. Reading the details reminds me of similar conversations today, such as concerns about closing schools with some believing back then that children would be safer in schools that were kept in sanitary conditions and carefully watched by their teachers. Portland Christian Scientists petitioned to hold services as they claimed their congregation would be safe from infection because of their beliefs. Some people shared concerns about the misuse of power from police. (Then, expressed as “keeping people from worshipping.”) Windows were ordered to be removed from streetcars to increase ventilation as others argued for discouraging their use entirely.

There continued to be little true documenting of cases, and disagreement whether people simply had colds or influenza with the Oregon Daily Journal issuing the headline, “Health Condition in Portland is Almost Normal.” Many of the closures and protective isolation plans in Portland at that time were short-lived as public places reopened on Saturday, November 16 (as duly noted in J.K.’s diary), and some worried this celebration to be too early, and that new cases would show up. And, in fact, new cases began to rise in January leading to 200 extra hospital beds to be crammed into corridors and rooms of Portland hospitals to accommodate additional cases, and visitors banned. At one earlier point the City Council agreed to make the city Auditorium available to those who could not afford care as an emergency hospital

Disagreements continued between those arguing for closures and quarantines, and those insisting other practices (distancing, ventilation) could prevent additional exposures. After City Council passed a resolution placing influenza on the list of quarantinable infectious diseases, health inspectors and police officers began placing white and red placards on homes with ill residents and exerted penalties for violating quarantines. We can only imagine the problems and disagreements this created!

And what about face masks for the public: a controversial topic again today! A draft mask resolution was created, requiring them to be worn by all people going into public spaces with penalty fines of $500 and 60 days in jail for not doing so. My industrial hygienist self wonders: certainly hand made? Not surprisingly, the proposed mask requirement was controversial although widely supported by the influenza committee – composed of business and medical community members. Several council members opposed it, and enacted a 38-day waiting period before it could go into effect, one claiming it to be “autocratic and unconstitutional.” One person characterized the meeting as “the greatest menagerie I have seen since I visited the New York Zoo – including the monkey cage.” Instead, the policy became a recommendation, with the First Presbyterian Church pastor requiring it among his congregants.

Masks, however, remained unpopular by many, and most tired of attempts to keep the disease away. It was at this point that the City Council did enact a mask ordinance, putting it in effect thirty days ahead in case a third illness wave was to appear, and there was little opposition. However, the ordinance was suspended ten days later when a third wave didn’t appear. Mid-January saw the largest rise in cases since later the previous fall, and Portland seemed helpless to stop the epidemic, now in its fourth month. Finally, cases began to decrease at the end of January, with it being officially declared to be over on January 31. The public was warned to expect small numbers of cases and to take every precaution to avoid a third wave.

In the end, Portland’s epidemic experience differed a bit from that suffered by many eastern cities and those of the mid-west. Other cities had seen steep increases of cases and deaths, but over a shorter overall time period. Portland, although experiencing peaks and dips like others, had a long, tough slog over several months. It also sounds like Portland had more voices representing public health (with four officers), and an attitude developed that wasn’t present everywhere that residents owned some of the fault in its spreading for not taking proper action, rather than being a natural progression of the illness. I imagine we hear much more today about the responsibility of individuals to do the right thing in preventing exposure, than might have been shared among individuals back then.

Although our daily routines and sense of security have been altered, and lives lost due to COVID-19, as during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic, experts cite significant differences between the two. Fatality rates, contagiousness, medical advancement, and global travel all impact these differences. And yet, both these momentous events – one an epidemic, the other pandemic – fill us with loss and pain. And in a very difficult way they bring us together in grasping the human experience as one. It is here that we must continue to be there for others, and while we share our worry, fear and sadness, look for ways and actions to bring hope to ourselves and others.

Dede Montgomery is the author of three published books, including her most recent Then, Now and In-Between: Place, Memories and Loss in Oregon (e-book only).

2 thoughts on “Masks and quarantines: Spanish Flu to COVID-19

  1. Some interesting parallels in today’s pandemic and the Spanish Influenza.
    Looks like some strategies are having to be relearned. Wonder what or if there will be any long term changes in the world as a result. What role will social media have played? This world is not the same as it was 100+ years ago.


  2. Pingback: Paddling, mournfully I muse | Dede's Books and blog

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