Journalists uncover lessons from the 1918 pandemic useful in covering COVID-19

Here are a few other recent reports comparing the 1918 Spanish Flu to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic

As readers of The Charlotte Observer found out on a recent Sunday, the common story of how the city escaped major illness and death in the pandemic of 1918 had one big problem: It just wasn’t true.

In an in-depth piece on April 12 by reporter Mark Washburn, the Observer revealed the truth behind the long-unquestioned myth that the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 left Charlotte relatively unscathed while other cities like Philadelphia were devastated. In fact, new data discovered by the Observer shows that, by the time the pandemic ended the next year, nearly 800 had died, while city officials had reported only half as many.

It was an eerily instructive story for a city facing the very same questions 102 years later: When should schools and business reopen? When can life get back to normal? The answer, and the lesson that Washburn’s reporting uncovered, was that reopening too soon could cause the disease to come roaring back worse than before.

“And so they’re saying it’s not too bad, not that bad,” Washburn said of city officials at the time, as reported by the Observer in 1918. “But it is, and the numbers are there.”

The modern-day Observer is not the only newsroom uncovering lessons like this from 100 years ago. Over the past few weeks of March and April, as cases of COVID-19 started to peak and communities across the US began grappling with the question of how and when to reopen schools and business, many media outlets are looking back at their community's experience from 1918 and drawing their own lessons.

Like Santa Cruz, California, where writer Ross Eric Gibson of The Sentinel wrote an April 12 story of soldiers from nearby Camp Fremont, helping with the harvest of 1918, who weakened and died amid trench-warfare-like conditions in an unusually rainy autumn. He found stories in their archives of people fainting in the streets as the second and third waves hit their West Coast community in November and December, and of the flu taking entire families to their grave.

Or the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which published a story last week on how that city dealt with the 1918 pandemic, drawing an important lesson from their past:

“Cleveland during the 1918 flu had the largest death rate in the state, at 474 per 100,000,” said one expert quoted in the story. “It was not wise to reopen major cities with the flip of a switch after the 1918 flu outbreak. The restrictions were lifted too fast, too soon.”

Or in New York, where Staten Island Advance Writer Tom Wrobieski mined archives and found a surprisingly similar debate in 1918 to today’s tug-of-war between state and city officials over the question of whether children were better off in schools than at home.

For The Charlotte Observer, the story didn’t start out as an investigation. It began as more of “an atmospheric piece,” looking back on that 1918 experience, Washburn said.

First he went to the Observer news archives, where he found the official version of events from city and health officials, reporting the outbreak was “no cause for alarm” and that case numbers were under control.

Then, following a tip from county librarian Shelia Bumgarner that there might be important information in death certificates from the time available through the library, Washburn started digging.

The Big Lie: 102 years ago, Charlotte leaders downplayed devastation of Spanish flu | Click to enlargeComparing the two sources, he realized that the story told in the news clips and the facts in the actual death certificates just didn’t add up. While city officials kept reporting that case numbers were low, the bug was being eradicated and they could reopen schools and business that November, in fact they had been drastically undercounting all along.

As a result, when the city reopened, the flu came roaring back for a second wave that took many more Charlotte lives than the first.

“I thought I would just get some details,” Washburn said. “After I got into the death certificates, I started writing things down, little anecdotes. And then I did a couple of counts: October, and then November. And I see deaths are doubling. You could start to see the trend.

“I went back through the papers (Charlotte Observer clips).  So I have 130 deaths at one point, and here he’s saying there were 25 or 30. Looking through the papers, the mayor and health director were saying things that didn’t add up.”

To make sure, he went back and got every single death certificate for the period and counted cases day by day. The result was a revelation, displayed across a section-front in the Sunday print edition, and splashed across the home page on with the headline: “The Big Lie; 102 years ago, Charlotte leaders downplayed devastation of Spanish flu.”  The story highlighted one example after another of discrepancies between the official version, as reported in the Observer, and what death certificates now reveal.

In mid-October 1918, for example, the health director reported 20 deaths from Spanish flu in Charlotte. By that point, however, Washburn’s count of actual death certificates showed the number of deaths was 103.

“Whenever I looked at what the mayor said, I could look at that day and see the reality (death certificates), “ Washburn said. “He’s off by a factor of five!”

The pattern continued for weeks, with city officials reporting only a third of the 181 deaths by October 19, and only half the real number of 203 deaths by the end of the month. Based on this false picture, the city ended its quarantine Nov. 6, with devastating results.

“So now they lift the quarantine and everybody takes to the streets, and within a few days the flu just goes everywhere and it’s far worse than before,” Washburn found.

1918 Spanish flu in Charlotte: Deaths vastly under-reported | Click to enlargeIf there’s a common thread among the recent news articles comparing 1918 to 2020, it’s that without a vaccine, the only way to fight a pandemic is with measures like social distancing, ordering businesses to close, and requiring citizens to stay home.

In an April 14 story headlined “Lessons from the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic, “ KOIN-TV in Portland said it was just such an order that saved nearby Astoria, Oregon.

When Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nellie Smith Vernon saw  numerous soldiers coming down with the flu at nearby Ft. Stevens, she ordered stores, offices and schools to shut down in October 1918, saving possibly hundreds of lives, said a report by KOIN’s Ken Boddie.

Now, Boddie reported, the popular tourist town is shut down again to stop COVID-19. He interviewed McAndrew Burns of the Clatsop County Historical Society, who quoted Vernon's frequent reminder to Astoria citizens at the time: “Cover up each cough and sneeze. If you don’t you’ll spread disease.”

In other cities, the Spanish flu was far more deadly, overwhelming cities like Baltimore, where it took more than 3,000 lives in October 1918 alone, reported Childs Walker in an April 14 article.

“Wagons made grim processionals up and down city streets, carrying the afflicted from their homes to mass graves,” he reported. “A sloping section of New Cathedral Cemetery in West Baltimore became known as flu hill. Church bells tolled continuously to honor the dead, while the living swarmed any physician in sight, desperately seeking answers.”

In San Antonio, KSAT-TV found similar patterns to other cities, where an initial lockdown was lifted, leading to subsequent waves of Spanish flu.

“The city opted to open back up, after cases of influenza had sharply declined,” the station reported in an April 14 segment. “Most of November passed with no issue, but by early December, the virus had returned with vigor.” It eventually claimed nearly 900 lives, including 575 soldiers from nearby Ft. Travis.

All these news reports have one thing in common: They depend heavily on archives of contemporary newspapers and government records, and especially on the often unsung librarians and archivists who preserve and protect our collective community memories.

“This story would not have happened if not for a research librarian who told me to get down there and look at these certificates,” Washburn said. “That changes everything. You have a detail you never knew existed.”

It's the same with newsroom librarians he worked with over the years. “I just loved the librarians in our newsrooms,” he said. “They are some of the most important people in the newsroom.”

There is one set of records Washburn is still seeking: minutes of the medical society meetings that fall, where he hopes to find clear evidence that Charlotte doctors were telling city officials the truth about the many death certificates they were signing that were not showing up in the official death tolls.

Those records, however, are temporarily inaccessible, stored at the Atkins Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, now closed by the pandemic of 2020.

Stay tuned.


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