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April 2020 - 1918 Spanish flu

quarantine table

Health Department reports written at the end of 1918 called out the efforts to combat the outbreak of Spanish flu that had begun in Seattle that October and was still ongoing. The Commissioner of Health, Dr. J.S. McBride, wrote the following to Mayor Ole Hanson:

When the present influenza epidemic reached Seattle it necessitated prompt and drastic action to prevent a repetition of the experiences of some Eastern cities. A closing ban on all Churches, theatres, schools, dance halls, and all places of public assemblage, followed later by an order preventing stores and public offices from opening before ten o’clock A.M. and forcing them to close at three P.M., together with the State Board of Health regulation requiring the wearing of masks, was enforced. A vaccine was made up in our laboratory and furnished to all physicians free of cost, over 200,000 doses being given out.

He noted that these measures had largely brought the epidemic under control, but that “indiscriminate mixing of people during the peace celebration” in late November caused cases to rise again. Efforts to fight the disease early on were hampered by World War I, with a large influx of soldiers and war workers into the city, while a number of doctors were away on military service.

McBride’s report recounted how an early October survey of hospital facilities found that only 12 beds were available for influenza patients. The decision was made to turn the old courthouse into a temporary flu hospital, which at the time of his writing had cared for 1003 patients who “otherwise would have been denied either nursing or hospital treatment, and undoubtedly saved many lives.”

A separate report by the department’s Quarantine Division included this description of the outbreak:

The fall of 1918 ushered into our city the dreadful epidemic of so-called Spanish Influenza, and we were totally unprepared to cope with this virulent monster that racked the souls of both city and country throughout the entire world a few months previously. Handicapped by routine red tape at first, later by the careful physician (careful not to report his cases), the “Doubting Thomas” of the laity, and in many instances the gross neglect on the part of persons having the disease in a mild form, the loss of life, health and happiness has been appalling. It may be said here for those who have given their every energy, and in a number of cases their lives, in combatting this scourge, that the crown of a martyr is much too small, and we hope to see in the near future ample hospital facilities to care for the needy sick, and the necessary laws, both municipal and state, regulating quarantine. Spanish Influenza is still with us, and in all probability will be for some time to come. Absolute, strict quarantine, and that alone, is the only remedy. Penalties for physician and layman alike for unreported cases, isolation in hospitals when possible, and fumigation in all cases, regardless of type, should be the requirements.

Meanwhile the Sanitation Division noted that “considerable effort has been expended in enforcing the ordinance against expectoration” but asked that the Police Department take over ensuring citizens’ compliance. The epidemic eased in 1919 and gradually tapered off, overall hitting Seattle less hard than many other cities.