The month before, the so-called Spanish flu was blamed for killing 11,000 in Philadelphia.
The epidemic that ultimately would claim an estimated 675,000 American lives — probably a tremendous underestimate since it didn’t include countless deaths involving preexisting conditions — was on fire in the fall of 1918.
Yet on Nov. 28, 1918, the nation celebrated Thanksgiving. Exuberantly.
“Best Thanksgiving in History of City,” proclaimed a headline in the New York Sun. Philadelphia, despite a daylong chilly drizzle, was the venue for parades, sporting events, and “flag raisings,” The Inquirer reported.
In his annual Thanksgiving proclamation, President Woodrow Wilson didn’t even mention the flu, which he later contracted himself.
COVID-19 is casting its long, persistent shadow over Thanksgiving 2020, but for a variety of reasons, the Spanish flu didn’t have a similar effect in 1918 on Thanksgiving or the subsequent holidays. That likely had consequences later.
“The Great War” had ended two weeks earlier, and as University of Pennsylvania historian David Barnes pointed out, since this was the war to end all wars, World War II wasn’t yet a gleam in the national eye. And while the flu was still killing, it appeared to be in retreat.
In the words of historian Kenneth C. Davis, author of the “Don’t Know Much About” series, the national attitude was: “We have a lot to be thankful for. The war is over, we’re still alive.”
He added that by Thanksgiving, people were anxious to forget an epidemic that they didn’t quite understand in the first place.
The coronavirus and the Spanish flu — a misnomer since it might have started in Kansas — appear to have at least one thing in common in that they both induced certain degrees of denial.
In so many other ways, they are as different as the Thanksgiving of 1918 and Thanksgiving 2020.
The biggest contrast is in ferocity. In October 1918, the flu claimed as many lives as 4,500 in a week, and 13,500 in the September-through-December period in Philadelphia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far just under 2,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in the city.
In Pennsylvania, nearly two-thirds of coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing facilities. The Spanish flu’s favored targets were people 20 to 40 years old. In all, 25% of Americans were infected.
The flu was so horrific and such an outlier that it would be hard to identify any lasting lesson, said Barnes, who teaches the history of medicine and public health.
But, he added, that doesn’t have to be the case with this pandemic.
The month from hell
Davis, who wrote a book about the flu, More Deadly Than War, is among those who has chronicled Philadelphia’s infamous Liberty Bond Parade of Sept. 28, 1918. Attended by 200,000 people and featuring march king John Philip Sousa, it was an all-time super-spreader event. Deaths spiked within 72 hours.
On Oct. 3, the state ordered all theaters and saloons closed, and Philadelphia added schools and churches to the list. But it was too late: During the week that ended Oct. 19, 4,500 were dead.
By the first week in November, the flu virus “had burned up all the available fuel,” Davis said, and even though massive crowds gathered to celebrate the war-ending Armistice on Nov. 11, the aftereffects weren’t as dire.
In the week that ended Nov. 23, the city did report 103 deaths. That did not stop Thanksgiving.
During the war, Barnes said, “the absolute imperative was to sustain morale,” a mission in which newspapers participated enthusiastically, and that “no bad news allowed” spirit lingered after the war.
Nor was whining allowed, said Monica Schoch-Spana, a senior scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
People had lived through rationing and had watched loved ones die in front of their eyes. “Every day already was hardship experience,” she said, “people were reeling on an everyday basis.”
In short, Americans were ready for a break and were thinking, “Now we can step back from the height of scarcities,” she said.
The New York Sun wrote of families welcoming returning military personnel they didn’t know into their homes for dinner.
Said The Inquirer: “Philadelphia yesterday celebrated Thanksgiving with more genuine thankfulness, perhaps, than in many years.”
» Here are Philly’s current COVID-19 guidelines: inquirer.com/phillyguidelines
The flu, however, did not go away. It experienced a resurgence in December, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the first six months of 1919, “influenza” deaths were matching the annual totals for each of 1915, 1916, and 1917.
“It’s pretty clear it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it did or been as deadly if people had been keeping to themselves,” said Barnes.
The pandemic next time
It would be impossible to know precisely what effects mitigation efforts would have had on the spread of the flu.
Davis pointed out that the nation had no organized response, leaving it to states and local governments. Some cities in the West did have mask ordinances, as did Atlanta.
But in shutting down theaters and saloons, the Pennsylvania health commissioner didn’t address masks or physical distancing, mentioning only the importance of getting fresh air and exercise.
Barnes said the response or lack thereof wasn’t surprising since people were apt to view what was happening as a “flu,” with which they were familiar, not some exotic plague.
He said that while he finds it “infuriating” when people deny the seriousness of the coronavirus, he understands why. “There are plenty of people who don’t know anyone who has been affected by COVID,” he said.
That’s because it has had such an inordinate impact on people of color, the marginalized, the elderly, he said.
“It’s our own fault for not wanting to see the soft underbelly of society,” he said.
But he suggested that the coronavirus ultimately could have a positive legacy.
Given that so many fatalities occurred among people with preexisting conditions, the nation would be wise now to turn its attention to fighting the likes of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, he said.
Rather than merely bracing for the next pandemic, he added, “I think we have other public health priorities that definitely need to be addressed.”
This article contains a correction. The comments at the end of the story were made by University of Pennsylvania historian David Barnes.