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We've been here before: West Kentucky, the Spanish Flu and COVID-19

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A collage of headlines from area newspapers in September, October and November 1918 shows the similarities in coverage between the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and what west Kentuckians are currently experiencing surrounding COVID-19.

A collage of headlines from area newspapers in September, October and November 1918 shows the similarities in coverage between the Spanish Influenza Epidemic of 1918 and what west Kentuckians are currently experiencing surrounding COVID-19.

While the events surrounding COVID-19 can sometimes feel unprecedented, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the first time that the U.S., Kentucky or even the Purchase Area has faced a pandemic.

Just over a century ago — in the spring of 1918 — the U.S. was in the throes of World War I. Food, medicine and household goods were being rationed for everyday consumption and on the edge of everyone’s attention was an illness that would eventually claim the lives of an estimated 675,000 Americans and more than 14,000 Kentuckians — an H1N1 virus with avian origins that would become known as the Spanish Flu.

To learn about how west Kentucky fared during the epidemic, The Sun spoke with Dr. Gregory Culver, a professor at Austin Peay State University who wrote his master’s thesis on the subject while studying at Murray State University in the late 1970s.

“The Spanish influenza epidemic of 1918 is unique in this nation because, unlike previous epidemics, it raged through every state,” Culver said in an article on the subject.

“From the first diagnosed case in late September, the disease rather than the war effort became the greatest challenge to the citizens of Kentucky.”

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When the first Kentuckian was diagnosed, the Princeton Twice A Week Leader ran a notice: “All patriotic people who show the symptoms of this disease, should promptly isolate themselves in their homes, for the protection of the public, and in their rooms for the protection of their families.”

The epidemic gained a stronghold in military bases around the country as soldiers returned from the European theater. In Kentucky, the first case was discovered at Louisville’s Camp Taylor.

A Calloway County seaman passed away at an Illinois military base in late September followed days later by a McCracken County Navy man who had returned home from the same base. Within weeks the disease had rapidly spread through the state.

“By mid-October the disease was ravaging nearly every town, village, and hamlet across the Commonwealth,” former Western Kentucky University librarian Nancy D. Baird wrote in a 1979 article. “The police were urged to enforce rigidly the antispitting ordinances, and citizens were requested to adhere strictly to all regulations that might be imposed by state and local health boards, for the protection of others was a ‘moral as well as patriotic duty ... (because) each sufferer of the disease not only deprives the country of his labor, but puts a greater drain on its resources because of the extra care required. ‘“

Even with those precautions, as many as 100 new cases a day were diagnosed by Paducah doctors that October.

In total, the 1918 Flu Epidemic would kill 814 Purchase Area residents — including 60 people in Marshall County — and infect thousands more. By the end of that October, 3,000 cases were diagnosed in McCracken County alone.

After the epidemic had mostly abated in November, the bans were lifted and life went back to a sort-of adjusted normal as schools and businesses worked to make up for lost time. Cases continued to be reported through the spring of 1919 around the state, claiming more lives but not reaching the levels of the fall. By the time “the Spanish Lady,” as many called it, left the state for good, Kentucky — like the nation — had lost more people to the flu than to war.

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As Mark Twain once wrote, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

Much like COVID-19, the Spanish Flu invaded nearly every aspect of everyday life. Looking through the archives at the papers from those flu-ravaged months, one is struck by the eerie similarities in coverage with COVID-19. Headlines about the increase in cases, event and gathering bans, business and school closures and sports cancellations were ever-present in newsprint.

With 1918 being an election year, it even crept into politics — much like COVID-19 is pushing back Kentucky’s primary election date.

U.S. Congressman Alben Barkley, a Paducah native who would go on to serve as vice president to Harry Truman, had been in Europe for over a month as part of a congressional delegation investigating the war zone. When he got back, he was unable to return to his hometown to campaign because his wife had fallen ill.

Barkley wrote a letter that was published in The Paducah Sun-Democrat: “I have been expecting to be home for several days, but this everlasting flu has prevented it. My wife is in bed with quite a disagreeable case, though she is improving.”

Barkley would win reelection, albeit with a much lower voter turnout.

Advice given to citizens in 1918 was similar to what’s recommended today regarding COVID-19, to take extreme caution and isolate:

“Avoid all crowds, all colds shall be treated as possible attacks of influenza, regulate body functions, avoid the breath and secretions from people suffering and, above all, do not panic,” Culver said in a Thursday interview with The Sun.

The professor illustrated some similarities and differences between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 Flu Epidemic.

“I think there’s a lot of parallels but the dynamics are different than they were in 1918 — people back then didn’t have access to telephones and certainly most people did not have electricity. People back then had a tougher time having access to food and medicine, too.”

Culver thinks the population could have already been weakened due to war rationing of several everyday items like meat and sugar.

One of the biggest differences he pointed out between the two disease outbreaks is the most affected population for the Spanish Flu was people between 20 and 40 years old, or people in the prime of their life, while COVID-19 is much more of a danger to older people. The lethality rate was also much higher than has been so far reported for COVID-19.

In the end, Culver believes that this pandemic will be handled better than the Spanish Flu was.

“Overall, it was worse back then than it is today. I think that people really suffered a little more back then because we understand medical science better today,” he said.

“There are many strong parallels with a century ago, and that’s why history is so interesting.”