Spanish flu of 1918 is lesson for border amid coronavirus pandemic

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Early 20th century pandemic struck El Paso-Juarez region three times in 1918-1919, historian says

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — If there’s one lesson to be learned about the 1918 Spanish flu that’s useful amid the present COVID-19 pandemic, it’s to not let your guard down.

Nurses care for victims of a Spanish influenza epidemic outdoors amidst canvas tents during an outdoor fresh air cure, Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1918 (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The deadly strain of influenza that felled 20 million people worldwide struck the border not once, but thrice in the early 20th century. That was a time well before terms like “social distancing” and “stay home, work safe” were coined.

El Paso historian Fred Morales says the Spanish flu arrived in El Paso in May 1918, kept a low profile through the summer, then came back with a vengeance in the fall. The disease originated in Asia, he said, spread to the Iberic Peninsula of Europe (Spain and Portugal) and likely was brought to the United States by soldiers coming back from World War I. Other accounts state that the Spanish flu was first observed in Europe, the United States and parts of Asia before spreading to the rest of the world.

“About 36 people were dying per day. The Mexican quarter called ‘Chihuahuita’ was very much affected. Over 100 people died […] but over 200 died living north of the railroad tracks, what today is known as Main Street,” Morales said.

Hospitals and medical workers were overwhelmed. Downtown buildings were equipped to handle the overflow of patients and the Red Cross recruited anyone with basic medical training or who knew how to care for the sick.

El Paso historian Fred Morales hold a newspaper clipping from 1918 about the Spanish flu in the region. (photo by Julian Resendiz/Border Report)

“Hospitals like Providence and Hotel Dieu were heavily utilized and filled to capacity. In those times, we didn’t have a lot of well-trained nurses and we didn’t have a lot of doctors,” Morales said.

By early October, city authorities realized they had a potential catastrophe on their hands and took extreme measures: schools, theaters and churches were closed for a week.

“They did shut down the schools, theaters, saloons and pool halls. No open-air meetings were allowed, just like it occurred during the current (COVID-19) pandemic,” Morales said.

But the fatalities continued and El Paso came to a virtual standstill. The street car and other modes of transportation were halted and vehicles were fumigated, he said.

The neighboring communities of Fort Bliss and Juarez, Mexico also reported fatalities from the virus. Morales says the disease was characterized by fever, coughing and sneezing and often led to complications in the lungs such as pneumonia — much like today’s coronavirus.

A newspaper article reports steps taken by authorities to cope with the Spanish flu of 1918. (photo by Julian Resendiz)

El Paso appeared to slowly beat the outbreak by going into a five-week quarantine through early November 1918, Morales said.

“The Health Department and the Red Cross put out a massive campaign to educate people about the influenza disease. They went door to door canvassing every house,” he said. “They did an excellent job in quarantining houses with infected. There was even one house in Chihuahuita where 20 people were living and they were all infected.”

But then came the Armistice and the end of World War I. People inevitably took to the streets in celebration.

“Everything went back to normal by early November. Even a big military parade was held,” Morales said. “A big crowd assembled in El Paso High School to celebrate the end of the war. Even San Jacinto Plaza was jam-packed with thousands of spectators and I would think these events led to another outbreak of the influenza disease in December 1918.”

When all was said and done by March 1919, El Paso and Fort Bliss had recorded a combined 350 fatalities while Juarez lost between 50 and 75 people, Morales said.

The tables have turned since then: El Paso had recorded only nine COVID-19 fatalities as of Tuesday; Juarez 32.

“The difference is today is that most of us wear masks or scarves. We practice social distancing. We adhere to more strict regulations by city authorities. Back then it was a different scenario. They didn’t practice such measures,” Morales said.

And twice, they let their guard down.

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