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"Hindsights"


Looking back at:

Spanish Flu
Didn't Play Fair

By Michael Barr
Michael Barr

They called it Spanish Flu although no one knew for sure where it originated. It first appeared on military bases in the spring of 1918. It spread wildly in barracks packed with soldiers, cruelly killing brave young men who had miraculously survived trench warfare in Europe. It arrived unseen at military facilities in San Antonio and made the short jump to the Texas Hill Country that fall.

When it first appeared in Gillespie County just about everyone mistook it for seasonal flu, but this stuff packed a wallop. Victims died at an alarming rate - in rare cases only hours after developing symptoms. The local Committee on Health and Sanitation warned "The malady comes very sudden to a serious state, and if you don't take good care, pneumonia will develop which is fatal in most cases."

On October 18, 1918, County Health Officer Dr. Victor Keidel reported 175 cases of Spanish Flu "but taking into consideration that a number of cases exist that are not reported to the authorities, it is calculated that prevalent cases will easily reach 200."

No one knows for sure how many Gillespie County citizens died of complications from Spanish Flu. It was not unusual to see several flu deaths per week listed on the front page of the Fredericksburg Standard throughout the fall and winter of 1918 and again in the fall and winter of 1919. In at least one case the disease wiped out an entire family.


Spanish Flu spread person to person by droplets ejected from the mouth when infected people coughed, sneezed or even talked. An infected person with mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, could unknowingly infect many others.

County health officials focused on prevention as much as treatment. Dr. Keidel ordered that all influenza patients be quarantined. He told families to stay at home, and avoid all unnecessary contact with others. 'At funerals, no services in the house from which it (the flu) takes place." If one had to be around others, keep your distance "to allow the fresh air to pass freely between." While indoors with others, stay in a well-ventilated room. "Have all laundry of the sick person boiled," and "bedding and other clothing should be sunned for several hours on the clothesline."

Dr. Keidel told people not to panic "but act with prudence and good common sense." Don't put yourself or others at risk. Stay at home. If you must go out, cover your mouth and keep your distance. And if you catch a cold, "treat it with respect."

Good advice, but it wasn't easy to follow. Spanish Flu didn't play fair. How could it be that shaking hands, hugging or even talking to a neighbor could be dangerous? Socializing, for humans, is like breathing. It's at the core of what it means to be human. To avoid socializing went against human nature.

The disease taxed medical personnel to the limit. By March 1919 so many local Red Cross workers were down with the flu, there was "a shortage of nurses to care for the sick."

Schools and churches closed from time to time when the disease was especially active. The Gillespie County Commissioners' Court banned all public gatherings when the Committee on Health and Sanitation thought it necessary. The Fredericksburg and Northern Railroad kept running, but the company disinfected passenger cars after every run.

In February 1920, with soaring infection rates causing fear of another wave of sickness and death, the Gillespie County Commissioners' Court issued an order of quarantine. The Fredericksburg Standard noted that "sick people from other places kept coming to Fredericksburg and therefore an order was passed to stop outsiders from coming in." The order authorized the Gillespie County Sheriff to maintain the quarantine for as long as the county health office "may deem necessary."

Finally in the spring of 1920 the spread of Spanish Flu slowed in part because a third of humanity had already been infected. But it never went away completely. Hill Country people still talk about it. And there are uncanny parallels between the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918-1919 and another deadly pandemic 100 years later.

Michael Barr
"Hindsights" January 1, 2021 Column


Sources:

"The Flu Situation," Fredericksburg Standard, February 14, 1920.

"Committee on Health and Sanitation," Fredericksburg Standard, October 19, 1918.



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