By Dave Bonner, Powell Tribune
This isn’t the first time local schools were closed and public gatherings banned in a public health defense against a deadly pandemic.
Some 100 years ago — when Powell was barely 10 years old — many of the same preventive methods in place today in the fight against COVID-19 were employed in the fall of 1918 across Wyoming in an attempt to keep the Spanish influenza at bay.
At the same time that World War I raged in Europe, the “Spanish flu” proved to be a deadly foe. Before it was beaten, Spanish influenza infected 500 million people in the world and cost 50 million lives. In the United States, 675,000 people died. Wyoming suffered more than 700 deaths in the pandemic, which appears to have been far deadlier than the current outbreak of COVID-19.
Historians and medical researchers believe the 1918 disease had a mortality rate of around 2.5%. While it remains early in this pandemic, a Monday paper published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases estimated COVID-19’s overall fatality rate at around 1.38% among confirmed cases and 0.66% overall, according to a summary of the paper compiled by WebMD.com. For comparison, the seasonal flu typically has a death rate of around 0.1%.
The Spanish flu came in three waves worldwide, historian Phil Roberts wrote for WyomingHistory.org, a project of the Wyoming State Historical Society.
“The first, in the spring and early summer of 1918, was relatively mild,” Roberts wrote. “The second, beginning in summer and gaining vast momentum in the fall, was far deadlier. A third wave, in the winter and spring of 1919, was less lethal than the second, but still dangerous.”
The Spanish influenza was first imprinted on the psyche of Powell residents when public schools were closed in early October of 1918, shortly after the start of the school year. State and local health officials decided to take the action to limit the spread of the disease after several outbreaks in other regions of the country.
The closure order came from the state board of health with the dictate that schools would not re-open “until all danger from the contagion has passed.” Additionally, public gatherings were to be discontinued and places of public amusement closed.
The closure was put in dollars and cents terms in an appeal for public compliance by then school superintendent, S.N. Erwin.
“The schools are costing the district almost [$150] a day, even when they are closed,” he was quoted in the Powell Tribune of Oct. 11, 1918. “We must, then, make this period of quarantine as short as possible. Parents should see that their children are kept at home, especially should they be kept off the streets. If this is not done, almost all of the advantages of the quarantine will be lost. It seems that the parents who do not keep their children off the streets and at home are entirely disregarding the interests of the community.”
For a time, the “social distancing” of that day seemed to be working. In fact, a headline in the Powell Tribune of Oct. 18 declared tentatively, “Powell relatively free from influenza.” Right next door, Cody was another story.
“While Powell and vicinity have so far escaped without a fatality, and in fact very few, if any serious cases having appeared, other parts of the county have not been so fortunate,” the Tribune reported. “Four deaths have so far occurred at Cody, among sixty cases of the epidemic. The death last Sunday of Fred Garlow, proprietor of the Irma Hotel, was followed on Wednesday by the death of Mrs. Garlow, both victims of the dreaded malady.”
There was even a hopeful ring to the Oct. 25 headline in the Tribune, EPIDEMIC NOW UNDER CONTROL.
“Reports from nearby towns would indicate that the influenza is subsiding and the disease is thought to be under control,” the Tribune reported. “Three more deaths are reported at Cody, making seven in all, but no deaths there since Monday and the conditions at the county seat are said to be improving.”
Still, the Powell school board cautiously extended the school closure into a fifth week.
“The Powell community has thus far escaped the ravages of the ‘flu’ and the general sentiment seems to be that to raise the quarantine now would be to invite the danger of a visitation of the disease which everyone in the community is anxious to avoid if possible,” the Tribune reasoned on Nov. 1.
There was good news with the end of World War I hostilities a week later, but no end to the flu quarantine. In fact, the Powell Tribune of Nov. 22 recorded even stricter quarantine rules issued by the town council. The post office lobby was closed for two hours at mid-day. Stores could remain open for business, but it became unlawful for anyone to be in a store except to transact business. And children were required to stay home.
The town council stated flatly “an emergency exists.”
Quarantine regulations made it unlawful for parents to allow their children “to congregate or play with other children in this town, or allow or permit them to congregate or play on the streets or property within town except on the premises where they live.”
As November drew to a close, the Powell Tribune still expressed hope the quarantine was doing its job.
“According to the report of our local health authorities this morning, there are now only about a dozen cases of influenza in Powell, and as none of the patients are seriously ill, it is taken as a hopeful sign that the situation is improving,” the Tribune reported on Nov. 29.
But it was not to be. Nor would there be public festivities for Christmas. For many Powell homes there was profound grief and gloom during the Christmas season. According to research by Park County Archives Curator Brian Beauvais, 187 cases of the flu were reported in Powell that December, on the heels of 89 cases in November.
The Powell Tribune of Dec. 20, 1918, proclaimed the Spanish influenza at a crisis point, with a dozen deaths in Powell in the preceding week. The Tribune’s intonation was indeed somber: “New cases are developing each day, and before the epidemic has left us we predict that there will be few families that will be able to claim immunity from the disease.”
The new year brought with it some sense of relief. Local health authorities assessed Powell almost completely free of the influenza, and Powell schools reopened on Jan. 20, 1919, with a new school nurse on staff (salary $100 per month). “Country schools” at Garland, Ralston, Starr and Fairview had successfully reopened on Jan. 6, 1919.
At the same time, the Tribune reported there was enough concern for the influenza and pneumonia lingering in Park County that a ban on dancing — both public and private — remained in place, “as dances have proven one of the most prolific sources of the contagion.”