Virginia’s Experience in the 1918 Flu Epidemic Could Help It Decide When To Reopen and How

While Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) and Virginia Republicans dicker over the methods and timing of how the commonwealth will allow businesses to reopen, it’s useful to step back and realize a lot of what we’re seeing today has happened before.

Like the rest of the globe, Virginia suffered through the 1918-1919 flu pandemic, and the numbers were horrifying, with more than 320,00 cases statewide and almost 16,000 deaths, though that number was likely understated.

If you think President Trump has been negligent in his response to the current pandemic, at least he’s had one. President Woodrow Wilson (a Staunton, Va., native) had little to say about the pandemic in public or private, owing to the ongoing World War I.

Northam has been accused of being overly cautious in his public remarks. But his long-ago predecessor Gov. Westmoreland Davis apparently made no public mention of the outbreak at all.

Davis’s greatest contribution was forwarding to the head of Virginia’s Prohibition Commission pleas from doctors who asked the governor to “distribute confiscated whiskey to flu patients.”

The preferred sustenance for flu patients, though, was milk. It was in short supply because of the war and flu outbreaks among dairymen. That supply chain got so dangerously thin that Richmond put inmates to work to keep milk supplies flowing.

So much for Trump ordering the slaughterhouses to remain open.

There were other shortages — of doctors, nurses and hospital beds. The shortages extended to, as Stephanie Forrest Barker wrote in her 2002 master’s thesis for the University of Richmond, the things that made staying at home little more bearable.

At the top of that list was 1918’s hottest streaming platform: the telephone. As Barker wrote, Virginia’s phone networks quickly buckled under the strain as chatty callers jammed the lines and telephone workers succumbed to the disease:

The volume of calls became so high that the company sent out an urgent plea for volunteers to help call each of the 13,000 telephone customers in Richmond … to ask that they limit their use of the phone to emergencies.

Remember that the next time you’re tempted to complain about the quality of that Zoom call.

And, of course, there were the business and school closures and bans on large gatherings at churches and other events, all of which resulted in enormous economic hardship.

The loudest complainers against closures then: the owners of pool halls, movie houses and churches.

The biggest defenders of closures? Medical and public health professionals, who warned that prematurely ending the lockdowns would be “nothing short of a public calamity.”

It’s not unlike the group of health professionals who recently sent a letter to Northam calling for “even more actions” before the state can safely reopen.

After a month of shutdowns, health officials in 1918 relented and reopened.

Roy K. Flannagan, the head of the Richmond Health Department during the 1918 pandemic, said conditions had changed and “any further penalizing of the public” was unnecessary.

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