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Community | Coronavirus | Local Government

How we dealt with a pandemic – a century ago

Red Cross Motor Corps members on duty during the influenza epidemic in the United States, in St. Louis, Missouri, in October of 1918. Photo from National Archives.

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part piece. The first part was published Sunday, June 28. Additional notes on this topic, assembled by longtime Nevada journalist and historian Bob Stoldal, who now serves as chairman of the board of The Nevada Independent, were published in April. As the coronavirus pandemic plays out in Nevada and the nation, these windows into the last worldwide contagion are eerily familiar.

When the city’s two newspapers went on sale Saturday morning, November 9, the Las Vegas Age told its readers: “The influenza situation has become more serious during the week.  Twelve deaths have occurred since last week’s report and three cases are reported in a critical condition this morning.”

“The hospitals are full,” the newspaper reported, and “the physicians are overworked.”

The city was reviewing a suggestion to move “patients to a place where they may be under constant observation.”

The high school was suggested, which would allow “the small number of physicians and nurses’ to “better supervise the care of those who are sick.”

There was another, more grim challenge. The newspaper revealed, “There is difficulty in getting sufficient caskets for the dead and it has been necessary to have them made of boards.”

The article further reported that C.B. Faust, the undertaker, “has the flu and is confined to his bed.”

The Clark County Review provided its readers with news that “the epidemic, according to local physicians, reached its peak here this week, when there were several deaths with many cases of a serious nature prevailing.”

At this point, the word “fear” was beginning to show up in the two papers’ coverage of the local epidemic.

The first week in November, Squires published what Dr. Martin recommended what to do — and not do. “We are in the midst of an influenza epidemic which has been sweeping the country for several weeks,” Dr. Martin said, warning, “It must be controlled or a great loss of life will result.  The public must co-operate and observe the regulations of the health department or little will be accomplished.”

Dr. Martin’s instructions included:

·  Avoid and assist in preventing gatherings and crowds.

·  Do not stand close to or directly in front of one while talking.

·  Insist on isolation of people with symptoms of Influenza.

·  Wear a mask as required by the order of the City Commissioners.

·  Clean out, clean up and keep clean inside and out, personally and otherwise.

·  Brush your teeth, gargle your throat and spray your nose with antiseptic solution.

·  Remember that people can carry influenza for several days after they think they are well.

·  Beware of “sure cures.”

Dr. Martin ended by saying, “Fear only when you have not done your duty to yourself and fellow man.  You will have but little to fear, if instructions are properly observed.”

The Clark County Review also addressed the issue of fear, pointing to the “care of the body, and the elimination of fear” as “two of the greatest preventatives against contracting the disease.”

The Review’s story ended with its own expanded list of pandemic guidelines as to who is most in danger.

The newspaper said the disease “attacks people” who are “eating too much, drinking too much,” and recommended that portion sizes be reduced to two-thirds or half what is now consumed. Furthermore, “abstain from alcohol in any form, and you will be reasonably safe.”

That same week, voters went to the polls in Nevada. They reelected U.S. Senator Henderson and Gov. Boyle, and voted to ban the sale of alcohol.

In Clark County, the incumbent sheriff, Woodard, was voted out, and Sam Gay, who had been sheriff, was returned to office.

The flu did not stop Las Vegans from voting. More than 70 percent of the registered voters cast ballots.

Right after the November election, the Las Vegas Age reported the mask order “is being very faithfully obeyed by the people. As yet it is too early to determine whether or not the masking is effective as a preventative.”

The newspaper added, “It is important that masks be worn, but this precaution is worse than useless unless the masks are sterilized frequently and kept clean.”

At the same time the mask ordinance became law, Chief Health Officer Dr. Martin told Las Vegans if they think they have the flu, “go to bed at once, do not wait,” and “be quiet and don’t worry.”

This was important, Martin said, to “protect others by keeping away from them.”

As the flu began to expand outside the city limits, good news came from Europe.

On the 11th hour of the 11 day of the 11th month of 1918, World War One ended with the signing of an armistice ending the fighting in Europe.

But the battle with the Spanish Flu would continue both abroad and at home.

The Las Vegas Age, on November 16, 1918, page one: “Influenza continues taking death toll.”

On Friday, November 15, 1918, the Las Vegas City Commission took a leap of faith, deciding to keep the wearing-of-the-mask ordinance on the books, but that it was, however, “unnecessary to continue to employ officers to enforce” the ordinance requiring everyone to wear a mask”

The Las Vegas Age added, “It is hoped that people generally will continue this precaution.  It is a protection both to yourself and to the other person.”

Starting with the November 16, 1918 issue, the Las Vegas Age began running a new feature, “The Toll of Death,” listing those who had died in Clark County from either “influenza, pneumonia or Bright’s disease.”

But offering a ray of optimism, once again, Squires published, “Influenza epidemic is on the wane.”

That was Saturday, November 23, 1918.

Squires said, “The influenza situation in Las Vegas has improved greatly during the past week.  The number of cases now being reported daily has reduced to two or three and the cases which are now running their course are much milder in form than previously.”

The Clark County Health Department in its weekly report announced during the week November 23 to November 30 there were four flu-related deaths.

At the same time, the health department reported a shift in illnesses — that the “development of the prevailing sickness has been several cases of small pox.”

The medical challenge was how to differentiate one from the other, health officials said. “There were a number of cases, which could hardly be identified as small pox,” one official said, “because of the fact the symptoms were mixed with the flu symptoms.”

Whether Spanish Flu or small pox, the health department played it safe and “at once quarantined all houses” where the sickness was suspected.

Despite a reduction in the number of new cases, people were still sick, and dying. Nobody was safe.

George Fayle of Goodsprings, who chaired the county commission, was in “extremely critical condition” with double pneumonia. And Las Vegas City Commissioner Elwell was reported to still be “critically ill’ with pneumonia.”

Another prominent Las Vegan, W. R. Thomas, Clark County’s first District Attorney, came down with the flu the first week in December.  He was unable to get outside for nearly two weeks.

Sixty days after the outbreak became public, local and state health officials and city government began to re-open Las Vegas.

The Clark County Health Board met on the afternoon of Friday, November 29, 1918 and voted to lift the ban that prohibited people from assembling. Effective that coming Monday, “chairs will be permitted to be placed in hotel lobbies, pool halls, etc., and the Majestic Theatre will open for business Monday night.”

However, the health board decided the schools should remain closed until “December 9 at the earliest.”

Despite the apparent reduction in cases, the health board felt it was necessary to create the position of County Quarantine Officer.

Dr. Martin said this was important as there were still people sick and contagious and there was a need to keep quarantine cards on the homes where there were still cases of the disease.

The quarantine officer was hired in November and spent a busy first week on the job placing signs on houses.

On December 7, the Clark County Review reported, “With the lifting of the ban on all public meetings and places of amusement, Las Vegas again entered its regular routine of business after a month of restrictions.”

The Review reported, “So effective did the order prove that, according to the health board, influenza cases have diminished to a negligible quantity, none of the cases reported being serious.”

Monday, December 9, 1918

On December 9, a week after he was taken ill with Influenza, County Commissioner Fayle died at his home in Goodsprings.

The community, which had been in continuous mourning for more than 60 days for the many family and friends who died, was shocked by the death of the popular community leader Fayle. He and his family had moved to Goodsprings in 1905. He was 37.

Throughout Clark County and the city of Las Vegas, people were still getting sick. Many were in serious condition.

By mid-December 1918, the fear of influenza continued to hold Las Vegas in its grips.

The Las Vegas Age reported cautiously that while the flu “situation is the most satisfactory of any time during the past month, the danger is by no means past.”

Dr. Martin continued to worry about people getting too close to each other, and not wearing masks.

The week of December 16, Martin issued an order “prohibiting all public dances until further order, on account of the influenza situation.”

Dr. Martin said “Dances are a particularly dangerous form of amusement at this time.  The overexertion, the violent exercise, heating the person and causing perspiration, the tendency to exposure, all contribute conditions which are most inviting to Influenza and which might easily arouse the scourge again to full activity.”

It was a slow start for Las Vegas schools.

The December 14 issue of the Clark County Review reported school administration said only a fraction of the usual number of students showed up “due no doubt to the prevalence of a few cases of influenza.”

However, it may have not been the fear of the flu that kept the kids away, as the moving picture theatre was packed with parents and their children.

The newspaper reported, “the children may be afraid of the flu when it comes to going to school, but attendance at the Majestic, since its opening does not bear out the theory.  Fatty Arbuckle started them all laughing as an opener and the house was a good one.”

The Clark County Review added, “Nobody realized how much a part of the present day the “movie” was until there was none.”

Majestic Theatre owner Bill Pike said he thought people were coming to the theatre because they knew the place had just been “thoroughly fumigated.”

Pike was familiar with influenza. Prior to coming to Las Vegs in 1914, he “contracted the flu after undergoing what he called “experimental” treatment for arthritis.

In a page-one story in his newspapers’ last edition of 1918, Squires said he hoped “the plague” of the Spanish Flu has “run its course in this city.”

Then, on Christmas Eve Dr. Martin received a telegram from the small Mormon community of St. Thomas. His fear of dancing became a reality.

The telegram from Levi Syphus reported the flu hit the Moapa Valley “immediately upon the return of one of our soldier boys, who, while in Moapa, was treated to a dance by his young friends. Practically all who attend said dance are now affected.”

Syphus requested the “county board of health take proper action to immediately establish and enforce a quarantine of all homes affected.”

The telegram asked for help because “there are no peace officers here” and “the former constable is seriously ill with the disease.”

A few hours after receiving the telegram, Dr. Martin headed for the Moapa Valley.  He would soon report the influenza epidemic had hit the area, with 20 cases reported in St. Thomas, four in Overton and 14 in Moapa.

The Las Vegas Age reported the disease “broke out last week with considerable violence,” but all patients are reported to be “doing well and no deaths have been reported.”

The Age added, “It seems to be the opinion of the physicians as well as of people generally that the influenza epidemic has practically run its course here.”

By the beginning of February 1919, no new cases of the Spanish Flu had been reported in Clark County.

On February 15, 1919, Squires once again optimistically reported, “It is hoped by physicians that the epidemic has run its course here.”

For the general population, Squires and the physicians were right.  However, the flu had not run its course in Las Vegas.

It would take several more lives, young and old. Moreover, virus would damage the mental and physical condition of many in Las Vegas.

As the residents of Clark County were still reflecting on the destruction, the Spanish Flu had by now spread across the entire state.

The Legislature, which met every other year, convened in January 1919 and immediately focused on the Spanish Flu pandemic.

The state’s chief health officer, Dr. Simeon Lemuel Lee, had prepared for the lawmakers and issued his report to the governor and members of the Legislature on the first day of the New Year.

Dr. Lee without hesitation told the governor, “We were not prepared either by laws or the appropriation of money to fight it. Had we been, I believe many lives might have been saved.

The state top health official warned there will be “future epidemics.”

Dr. Lee told the state legislators, “It is difficult to determine” the exact moment Spanish Flu hit Nevada, but when it did, “it spread rapidly throughout the state until there was scarcely a village or hamlet that did not pay toll to it in human life.”

He said that while Spanish Influenza was not one of the diseases that doctors were required to report to the state, “it is quite safe to say that there were from four to five thousand” cases in Nevada.

In addition, when pneumonia was contributory, Lee said the death rate was very high.

It was an understatement.

Statewide in 1918, Dr. Lee said, there were 65 deaths statewide that were attributable specifically to the influenza. But he added that influenza-related pneumonia caused 565 deaths.

The same deadly count was true in Clark County, where 235 people caught the influenza. Of that number, 42 people were recorded to have died of influenza, and influenza-related pneumonia.

According to Lee’s report, everyone who was diagnosed as having pneumonia in Nevada in 1918 died.

The 100 percent death rate is reflected in Las Vegas, where 42 cases of pneumonia resulted in 42 deaths.

In 1918, cases of influenza were not one of the virus doctors were required to report to the state. Dr. Lee asked the Legislature to change that law.

He said the Nevada medical community was “up in the air” about what to do when this type of flu hits a community.

Like Dr. Martin, Dr. Lee addressed the issue of fear: “There can be no question of doubt but that ‘fear’ so reduces the powers of resistance that man became easy victims, and ‘fear’ should have been entered in the death certificates as the remote cause of death.”

Dr. Lee pointed out the existing state law provided the health officer with little power in case of a health emergency like the Spanish Flu.

The state health officer called for the “repeal of the present health law” but, “If that is ‘too radical’ he said, the legislature needs to make “drastic amendments to the present law.”

Lee said Nevada was “not prepared either by laws or the appropriation of money to fight” the pandemic. “Had we been, I believe many lives might have been saved.”

Surprisingly, he said “the quarantine and mask questions have both been tried, neither one has proven successful.”

Instead, the people of Nevada in 1918 the health officer said, were “confronted with an epidemic so terrible in it results,” it “swept over the state as a consuming flame,” leaving six persons out of every thousand dead.

In Carson City, the Legislature quickly responded by expanding the members of the state health board. The governor was added to the board, bringing with it the power of the executive branch.

One key change gave the state health board the direct power in emergencies “to close schools and churches, forbid public gatherings” and “to condemn and abate conditions detrimental to health or likely to cause disease.”

The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Boyle on March 25.

Six week earlier, the Las Vegas Age reported on page one that “No influenza cases have been reported to the health officer in this city for several weeks. It is hoped by physicians that the epidemic has run its course here, but nevertheless every person should continue to use every means to keep in good physical condition.”

But the pandemic of 1918 had not run its course in Las Vegas. It continued to leave a trail of sickness and death for more than a year.

On January 21, 1920, William R. Thomas, the first district attorney of Clark County, died at 64. He never recovered from his bout with influenza in 1918.

In 1919 there were 179 cases of influenza reported in Clark County compared to the last ninety days of 1918, when 235 caught the virus.

The number of people who were sick and who died from the so-called “Spanish Flu” in Clark County will never be known.

1918, a pandemic, masks, social distancing, a promise of a serum by the end of the year and the federal government initially downplaying the spread of the virus. 

One change 102 years later, social distancing was five feet in 1918. Today, six feet.

Bob Stoldal is a Las Vegas journalist and historian who now serves as chairman of the board of The Nevada Independent. He also is chairman of the board for the Nevada State Museum and Historical Society and a member of the City of Las Vegas Historic Preservation Commission. He also sits on the board of Preserve Nevada.

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