Pandemics: Spanish flu of 1918 vs. coronavirus of 2020

Dec 29, 2020, 5:22 PM | Updated: Oct 4, 2023, 10:55 am

1918 spanish flu pandemics...

Masked doctors and nurses treat flu patients lying on cots and in outdoor tents at a hospital camp during the influenza epidemic of 1918. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to pandemics crippling the United States — this year and another more than a 100 years earlier — the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Pandemics: Spanish Flu vs. coronavirus

Hitting right at the end of World War I , the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people worldwide — about one-third of the world’s population and killed at least 50 million around the globe, about 675,000 in the United States.

Like today, before a vaccine became widely available to the general public, federal and local officials employed non-medicinal interventions such as isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants and limiting public gatherings to slow the spread of the influenza pandemic.

Also like today, government officials ordered citizens in 1918 to wear masks. They shuttered schools, theaters and businesses. Bodies piled up in makeshift morgues — and yes, that happened this year, too.

  • California distributed 5,000 body bags mostly to the hard-hit Los Angeles and San Diego areas and has 60 refrigerated trailers standing by as makeshift morgues as reported by ABC News on Dec. 15, 2020.
  • New York City has already set up 45 new mobile morgues. Local crematories are now allowed to work around the clock. At one Brooklyn hospital, the in-house morgue was filled to capacity earlier this year. The next day, the nursing staff ran out of body bags as reported by The New York Times on April 2, 2020.

Super spreaders, then and now

On Sept. 28, 1918, Philadelphia held an ill-fated Liberty Loan parade. And 72 hours later, the city’s 31 hospitals were filled to capacity.

Amy Coney Barrett opening statement Trump Justice Nominee Coney Barrett

Judge Amy Coney Barrett listens as President Donald Trump announces Barrett as his nominee to the Supreme Court, in the Rose Garden at the White House, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Top US virus expert Dr Anthony Fauci called an event in the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 26, 2020, for Amy Coney Barrett, the President Trump’s nominee to the Supreme Court justice, a “super spreader event.”

As well as President Trump and his wife Melania, those who attended and later tested positive included two senators, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany and former Trump counsellor Kellyanne Conway.

“The data speak for themselves – we had a super spreader event in the White House, and it was in a situation where people were crowded together and were not wearing masks,” Fauci told CBS News in October.

Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, an ally of the president’s who attended the event, urged Americans to take coronavirus “seriously” after spending days in intensive care with Covid-19.

“I was wrong to not wear a mask at the Amy Coney Barrett announcement, and I was wrong not to wear a mask at my multiple debate-prep sessions with the president and the rest of the team,” Christie said on Oct. 18, according to BBC News.

Mask mandates, then and now

1919 spanish flu pandemics

1st March 1919: Two men wearing and advocating the use of flu masks in Paris during the Spanish flu epidemic which followed World War I. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Johan Leaveau, a professor of plant pathology and disease and society at University of California, Davis, described how the lifestyles of people during the 1918 pandemic haven’t changed much during the past hundred years. 

“People were asked, as they are now, to stay home, socially distance and wear masks; shops closed and went under; people got tired of the pandemic and of the mandates imposed by public health officials and let down their guard, which resulted in additional outbreaks and preventable deaths. It all sounds very familiar,” he said.

On Nov. 9, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s statewide mask mandate took effect, but hours later . . .

. . . Carrying signs that read “Tyranny spreads COVID-19,” “No dictator Herbert” and “Our immune system is our God given PPE,” a crowd of about 50 people formed outside the governor’s mansion in Salt Lake City to protest what protesters called government overreach and an unconstitutional infringement on their rights.

A trolley operator refuses to let a passenger without a mask on board. U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES

After the first cases of the 1918 flu reached San Francisco in late September 1918, the city joined with others around the country in recommending – then a few days later, requiring,  – that residents wear masks whenever they were out in public.

But a few thousand people gathered in San Francisco to protest against measures to slow the spread of the flu. The group, known as the Anti-Mask League, said requiring people to wear them was unconstitutional.

People found not wearing masks in San Francisco faced charges of “disturbing the peace.” Most paid $5 fines (which went straight to the Red Cross); some went to jail until it became apparent that crowding people into jails during a pandemic was not a great idea, according to Forbes.

Pandemics attract critics, both for Spanish Flu and COVID

During the 1918 pandemic, reporters spotted San Francisco Mayor James Rolph out in public, posing with a congressman, an admiral and two judges – all without masks. When the city’s police chief spotted the photo, he promptly fined his boss $50.

The mayor of San Jose, California, apologized for attending a Thanksgiving dinner this year with more households than allowed under state regulations.

In a statement posted on social media Dec. 1, Mayor Sam Liccardo said the gathering at his parents’ house consisted of eight people from five households. Restrictions issued Nov. 13 limited gatherings at a private household to three, he acknowledged.


During a Facebook video message posted Nov. 9, while in Mexico, the mayor of Austin, Texas, Steve Adler said, “We need to stay home if you can, do everything you can to try to keep the numbers down. This is not the time to relax.” according to ABC News.

By the end of its 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, Salt Lake City experienced a total of 10,268 reported cases, nearly 9% of its population. Of those who fell ill, 576 residents died as a result of influenza or pneumonia, a case fatality ratio of 5.6%, according to the Influenza Encyclopedia.

As of Tuesday, Salt Lake County has seen a total of 105,026 coronavirus cases, 5,004 hospitalizations and 541 deaths, according to the Utah Health Department coronavirus tracking website.

How To Prevent the Spread of COVID-19 Coronavirus

COVID-19 coronavirus spreads person to person, similar to the common cold and the flu. So, to prevent it from spreading:

  • Wash hands frequently and thoroughly, with soap and water, for at least 20 seconds.
  • Don’t touch your face.
  • Wear a mask to protect yourself and others per CDC recommendations.
  • Keep children and those with compromised immune systems away from someone who is coughing or sneezing (in this instance, at least six feet).
  • If there is an outbreak near you, practice social distancing (stay at home, instead of going to the movies, sports events, or other activities).
  • Obtain a flu shot.

Local resources

KSL Coronavirus Q&A 

Utah’s Coronavirus Information 

Utah State Board of Education

Utah Hospital Association

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Utah Coronavirus Information Line – 1-800-456-7707

National Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Commonly asked questions, World Health Organization

Cases in the United States

We want to hear from you.

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Pandemics: Spanish flu of 1918 vs. coronavirus of 2020