As Nevada Yesterdays returns after a few months of social distancing, it’s worth remembering COVID-19 isn’t our first pandemic. The flu outbreak in 1918 also had a significant impact on Nevada, and had some important similarities to the present.
The international pandemic began in August 1918. Around 25 million Americans got the flu and about half a million of them died. Today, the U.S. population is more than three times larger. The numbers today would be even more staggering.
At the time, Nevada had about 75,000 residents. The state reported just under 4,000 cases of the flu, which was probably low because not every case was reported. The state health board said 65 died of the flu, but another 565 died of pneumonia, which appears to have been related to the flu or caused by it. In Clark County, with fewer than 5,000 people, health officials reported 235 cases of the flu. Forty-two died of the flu or pneumonia that appears to have been related to it.
The first Nevada case was reported in Las Vegas in September, with other towns around Nevada following in October. But how sure are we of those numbers? At one point, the Las Vegas Age reported a dozen local deaths from the flu in a week. As with COVID, someone might have a few symptoms but it might not be the Spanish Influenza … sometimes they called it pneumonia or grippe.
There were other parallels. Like today, an election was coming. Senator Charles Belknap Henderson was trying to win a term after being appointed to succeed the late Francis Newlands, and Governor Emmet Boyle was seeking a second term. But their campaigning was limited. With Nevadans voting on prohibition, its opponents advertised that whiskey was valuable in treating the flu.
Officials around Nevada tried to limit large gatherings. In Las Vegas, Dr. Roy Martin shut down a draft board meeting at the old Clark County Courthouse because too many men were in one room. Early in October, several counties shut down churches, movie theaters, dance halls, and schools. In Reno, they closed the high school but let the elementary schools stay open because younger people didn’t seem to get sick … just as some argued at first about COVID-19. The current virus has been a real problem in prisons and on reservations, but the Nevada State Prison reported no cases in 1918. The Stewart Indian School was less lucky and had about 200 reports of the flu. The current virus has been a real problem in prisons and on reservations, but the Nevada State Prison reported no cases in 1918. The Stewart Indian School was less lucky and had about 200 reports of the flu. (See comment below on today's state prison system.)
There’s one other thing we would like to mention. In November 1918, City Commissioners passed an ordinance requiring all Las Vegans within the city limits, at all times and in all places, to wear a mask. The local Red Cross made masks for everyone in town. The Las Vegas Age reported the law was “being very faithfully obeyed.” Dr. Martin encouraged that, as well as not gathering in crowds or standing too close to other people, isolating those with symptoms, keeping clean, and not believing in what he called “sure cures.”
Does it all sound familiar? Here’s something different: all of THEIR news came from weekly newspapers in Las Vegas and around the state, and a couple of dailies. No radio, much less television or the internet for information, good and bad. They still got through the pandemic. So will we.
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