Galveston’s Response to COVID-19 mirrors that for Spanish flu

Face mask used during the Spanish influenza epidemic. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.
Face mask used during the Spanish influenza epidemic. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.
Galveston Red Cross members received this article about Spanish influenza in October 1918. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.
Galveston Red Cross members received this article about Spanish influenza in October 1918. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.

Galveston residents are now familiar with closed businesses, cancelled events, and commands to maintain distance due to the coronavirus pandemic. The past month seems unprecedented. Yet our response to the pandemic parallels the city’s response to the Spanish influenza a century ago. Spanish flu spread throughout military camps and the trenches of World War I during the spring of 1918. Journalists in neutral Spain wrote openly of the disease, leading to its name. A deadlier version of the virus returned to the United States in the autumn, spreading like wildfire.

Reports of deaths in Texas from Spanish flu reached Galveston in early October. Mayor Isaac Kempner closed theaters and dance halls on October 11th. The school board closed public schools the same day. Americans today seek guidance from Dr. Anthony Fauci, member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Mayor Kempner acted upon the recommendations of city health officer Dr. Henry P. Cooke in 1918. Dr. Cooke stressed that the virus spread from close contact. He and other medical officials encouraged residents to avoid crowds and crowded streetcars, to cough and sneeze into handkerchiefs, and to wash hands often. Misinformation traveled as well. Doctors reminded residents that quinine treated malaria and not influenza, as some advertised. The United States Food Administration adamantly denied that wartime sugar rations caused the illness.

Telegram from Harry Hawley telling his wife in New York not to return to Galveston because of the influenza outbreak. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.
Telegram from Harry Hawley telling his wife in New York not to return to Galveston because of the influenza outbreak. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.

City officials, like their counterparts elsewhere, responded haphazardly to the epidemic. They allowed parades to continue. Thousands of residents celebrated in the streets during a liberty loans parade on October 13th. The virus spread and officials extended bans on meeting places and entertainment venues. Dr. Cooke reported 677 cases during a two-week period in October. Local Red Cross members closed their work room on October 15th, shortly before sending 1600 face masks to sick soldiers.

Cases appeared to decline by the end of October. Pool halls and movie theaters soon reopened. Students returned to school on November 4th. This was hasty. New infections and deaths again skyrocketed. Dr. Cooke, with apparent frustration, stated that “people will not take precautions unless they are almost forced to do so.” He recommended that residents continue to practice good hygiene and avoid crowds. Galveston schools once again closed on December 5th. Almost 20 percent of students were already absent. The Spanish flu epidemic eventually weakened and ended in 1920. The events of the autumn of 1918 receded into the past, until today.

Publication from the Texas State Board of Health about preventing contagious diseases. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.
Publication from the Texas State Board of Health about preventing contagious diseases. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library.

The Rosenberg Library’s Galveston and Texas History Center contains publications and correspondence regarding the Spanish influenza. These materials prove the necessity of the city’s response. 112 residents died of the flu and bronchial pneumonia in October and November 1918, compared to zero deaths during the same months in 1917 and two deaths in 1919. Young adults faced greater risk. 141 residents between the ages of 20 and 50 died in October and November 1918, compared to 49 deaths in 1917 and 40 deaths in 1919. Doctors believed social distancing and good hygiene kept these numbers from climbing, mirroring today’s response to the coronavirus.

Originally published by the Galveston County Daily News on April 9, 2020, written by Sean McConnell, senior archivist at Rosenberg Library in Galveston, https://www.galvnews.com/news/free/article_a94d3136-98cf-57d5-9fa8-870d4854bd53.html.