Questioning the importance and effectiveness of social distancing? Look no further than the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918 for a moment in Southwest Colorado’s past that should inform the present.
“I think social distancing is the single most important thing the average person can do,” said Guy Walton, a retired nurse and co-author of the book “Mercy Hospital of the San Juans.” “Just like it was then.”
In 1918, the biggest threat to the world’s population was the Spanish flu as it spread rapidly from continent to continent, country to country. In all, the virus killed an estimated 50 million to 100 million people globally.
It’s still unclear where the virus originated, though the first known case was reported in Kansas in March 1918. Regardless, the disease found its way to Colorado in September 1918. By the next month, news reports at the time said the flu took its first known victim in Durango, an 8-year-old girl named Loisa Bass.
In La Plata County, more than 200 people of a population of about 11,000 would succumb to the deadly virus, a mortality rate of about 1.8%, which in fact was below the worldwide average of 2.5%.
One of the main reasons Durango saw less death, Walton said, was the community’s ability to self-isolate.
“It was devastating to the community and the businesses, but it did work,” he said.
Church services and schools were shut down. Public gatherings were prohibited. People who rode into town on the train were quarantined in hotels. And bars, the first businesses to close during the current coronavirus outbreak, were somewhat ironically the last holdouts to shutter their doors.
Walton referenced a 1976 interview between Fort Lewis College professor Duane Smith and Bessie Finnegan, a nurse during the 1918 outbreak, who described the eerie feeling around downtown Durango.
“You should have seen it ... There was nobody in the streets ... The whole town was in mourning. Everything in town was shut down,” she said.
Efforts to abate the virus’ spread appeared a success, and the flu seemed to have run its course by November, so when Germany surrendered through a treaty Nov. 11, ending World War I, residents took to the streets to celebrate.
And from that day, now known as Armistice Day, forward, things started to go terribly wrong.
Bev Rich with the San Juan Historical Society said people’s impromptu block party in Silverton gave an opportunity for the virus to rapidly spread among the town’s population. And it did, with catastrophic effects.
Nearly 250 people of the town’s 2,500 residents died – a death rate of 10%. By the end of the epidemic, Silverton had the highest flu mortality rate per capita in the entire country.
Now, there are two mass graves in Silverton’s cemetery.
“Flu victims were dying so quickly, they couldn’t be buried,” Rich said. “They were overwhelming the hospital and mortuary, and they didn’t know if the bodies were contaminated.”
The town of Gunnison, with a population of about 1,300 people at the time, took a different course: an extreme lockdown.
According to a recent report in The Guardian, the town put up barricades, shut itself to outsiders, arrested those who disobeyed and went into a lockdown for four months.
“Gunnison emerged from the pandemic’s first two waves – by far the deadliest – without a single case,” The Guardian reported. “It was one of a handful of so-called ‘escape communities’ that researchers have analyzed for insights into containing the apparently uncontainable.”
Small towns like Durango and Silverton that experience such deep trauma aren’t quick to forget, even if it’s more than 100 years after the fact.
As the coronavirus spreads throughout the U.S., both Walton and Rich said there are important lessons to be learned from the 1918 flu – namely, the community must self-isolate in order to slow the spread of the virus and expose fewer people.
In Silverton, for instance, the town recently enacted a shelter-in-place order that included a ban on unnecessary travel and visitors, going so far as to close access to public lands for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers.
“These are not extreme measures in these extraordinary times, and we are not the first community to enact them,” San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad wrote in his order.
Whereas the 1918 flu’s mortality rate was 2.5%, the novel coronavirus’ death rate is still being determined, but initial data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 10% to 27% death rate among people over 85 and a 3% to 11% rate for people 65 to 84.
Measures have been taken in Durango and Silverton and across the state to limit human interaction and slow the spread, in an attempt to limit the death toll. But it’s also just as important, Rich said, as the town of Silverton learned on the first Armistice Day, to not let the guard down too soon.
“We now have learned a lesson from other pandemics, in that we know what we’re supposed to do right now, and that’s social distancing and being clean,” she said.
firstname.lastname@example.org A previous version of this story erred in saying the Spanish influenza originated in Europe.