When It Was Worse

Looking back at the deadly 1918 flu pandemic

| 01 Feb 2021 | 03:36

Sunday, August 11, 1918, in New York was fair and relatively cool. As the Norwegian ship Bergensfjord sailed into New York Harbor, all seemed normal. It was not.

On the pier ambulances and Port of New York health officers waited to meet 21 crew and passengers carrying an unwelcome visitor: the flu. Five days later, the Nieuw Amsterdam brought another 22 flu victims, and exactly three weeks after that the French liner Rochambeau arrived with another 22 cases and two dead on board.

Having survived yellow fever epidemics in 1832, 1849 and 1866, plus endemic cholera, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery, the city was prepared. Although Leland Eggleston Cofer, the Health Officer of the Port of New York, labeled the flu a non-serious event, the Health Department immediately isolated the sick at two local hospitals, the Willard Parker on East 16th Street and at the French Hospital on West 34th Street. Three weeks later, on September 12, Commissioner Royal S. Copeland placed the entire Port of New York under quarantine.

By October, when New York counted nearly 4,000 new cases and as many as 500 deaths day, Copeland was in full battle mode. He convinced businesses to stagger their work shifts to avoid rush hour crowds, set up more than 150 emergency health centers across the city, put up posters telling residents to cover their coughs and sneezes in public, and told the police to slap $1 fines on people caught spitting. He did not, however, close schools which he considered cleaner and safer than many city homes and, lacking TV and the internet, he kept theaters open to provide information sites for the general public.

New York has always been a real estate town, so it is not surprising that the pandemic also affected people’s homes. As The Commercial Observer tells it, rent strikes were common, eventually leading in the 1920s to rent control laws. Fresh air was thought an effective weapon against the flu leading to steam heating and radiators to keep New Yorkers warm inside even as they threw open their windows in the cold dead of winter, a situation which prevails today when an estimated 80 percent of New York’s apartment buildings still use steam heat producing an occasional high flying manhole cover on the street.

Meanwhile, back in 1918, Copeland’s policies worked. New York’s death rate stabilized at about 4.7 deaths for every 1000 people versus Boston’s 6.5 and Philadelphia’s 7.3. per 1,000. But worldwide the toll was staggering. According to Sandra Opdycke, author of “The Flu Epidemic of 1918: America’s Experience in the Global Health Crisis,” “In the pandemic, the U.S. lost 675,000 people out of a population 1/3 the size of our current one, and the world lost 50-100 million out of 2 billion people, versus our current worldwide death-count of a little over 2 million deaths out of 7 billion people. By the time that last fever broke and the last quarantine sign came down, the world had lost 3-5% of its population.”

In short, minus testing, vaccine and treatment, bad as our days have been this year, back then, it really was worse.

In 1918, with the World War raging, none of the combatants was willing to let the others know that the flu was spreading through its army, potentially decimating its troops. But in May, when the virus reached Spain, which was not a participant in the conflict, and the King was stricken, there was no such reticence. He survived the illness (as did President Woodrow Wilson), and ever after it was known as the Spanish flu.