The Journal Gazette
 
 
Saturday, March 21, 2020 1:00 am

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Lessons of the last pandemic

Just over a century ago, the 1918 flu pandemic killed 20 million people worldwide. Fort Wayne and Allen County fared better than many places, probably because local and state health departments quickly moved to limit transmission of the disease by discouraging public gatherings and efficiently quarantining those ill.

The pandemic emerged while World War I was still raging in Europe. It traveled to the United States with returning soldiers, and infections began appearing in eastern U.S. cities in the fall of 1918.

Here, restrictions were lifted too soon – twice. Indiana banned public gatherings and ordered churches, schools and theaters closed on Oct. 8, The Journal Gazette's Nancy Vendrely wrote in a 1998 piece.

But many here, still focused on supporting the war effort, decided to ignore the order.

The state briefly allowed Fort Wayne to lift its ban when no cases were detected here. But the flu was already hitting nearby counties.

The state reimposed a local closings order in mid-October, but by the end of the month, Vendrely wrote, Allen County had seen 109 cases of the virus, and six deaths.

The restrictions were lifted on Nov. 15, but had to be reimposed in early December, Vendrely wrote.

Schools remained closed and citizens were asked to wear protective masks in public. Those younger than 15 were banned from public gatherings; adult shoppers were allowed in stores but told to keep moving. Businesses kept their doors and windows open for fresh air despite the winter chill.

A survey by the local Influenza Commission estimated 5,000 people had the illness in Allen County. It was never determined exactly how many people died here during the pandemic. But during the last half of December, there were 47 flu-related deaths in Allen County.

Local restrictions were eased again as infections dwindled at the end of the month.

Allen County's response, on-again off-again as it was, may have lessened the local severity of the pandemic, which claimed 675,000 American lives.

Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director of The History Center, said in an email Friday that this region has survived many frightening epidemics over the centuries.

“The well-known Spanish Flu Pandemic and other calamitous outbreaks including smallpox in the 1730s and 1750s, cholera in the 1840s and 1850s, and diphtheria in the 1930s steeled our people and fortified a particular brand of communal ruggedness in our community,” Pelfrey wrote. “Whether assailed by flu or flood, history proves that Fort Wayne is the 'City that Saves Itself.' ”

Pelfrey said the History Center has already started a file on the COVID-19 epidemic.

“When this event is studied by long future generations,” he wrote, “we can hope that the narrative will demonstrate how we engaged this current crisis with the same might and main as our forebearers.”


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