Denver’s Been Here Before: 1918-1920 Pandemic

Photo: Trevor Leach · The Sentry The pandemic of nearly a century ago has parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo: Trevor Leach · The Sentry
The pandemic of nearly a century ago has parallels to the current COVID-19 pandemic.
100 years ago another outbreak hit Colorado hard 

Just over 100 years ago a pandemic of influenza swept over the world and killed tens of millions of people, with over half a million in the United States. According to Katie Rudolph from the Western History and Genealogy Department at Denver Public Library, the Colorado climate worked against a population of aging miners and people with tuberculosis who could not find the strength to overcome pneumonia. As a result, Colorado endured one of the highest rates of mortality in the country. 

While many refer to the 1918-1920 pandemic as the “Spanish Flu,” its actual origin remains uncertain. It often carries an association with the unsanitary conditions of trenches in the first World War, but some medical experts once thought it may have even originated in Kansas. It only became associated with Spain because the country had more extensive reporting on their situation at the time. According to a National Geographic report from 2014, that particular strain of H1N1 likely arose in China and spread around the globe through laborers from the region, employed during the war by countries like France and the United Kingdom. It quickly began to affect communities far away from the battlegrounds in Europe, with Colorado reporting the first cases in September, 1918. 

Unlike the current viral pandemic, COVID-19, the 1918-1920 influenza struck people in their 20s more than any other age group. Blanche Kennedy, a student at University of Denver, contracted the illness while on a trip to Chicago and unknowingly brought it with her to Colorado. Tragically she became the first victim in the state, succumbing to pneumonia at the age of 20 

Schools and businesses closed much like today, and the City of Denver banned public gatherings. Even funerals for the deceased became impossible as people tried to stop the spread of the disease. A similar concern existed for the local economy, with business leaders clashing over the government response. According to the Influenza Encyclopedia produced by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine, the city of Denver revised the rules under pressure from local venues to allow for people to once more go out as long as they wore medical face masks. With opposition from people who refused to wear it or distrusted their effectiveness, the city found it impossible to enforce the law. After less than a week, they revised the rules again to enforce stricter quarantine measures. Eventually the pandemic made its course and the number of cases dwindled down. 

 In the article from National Geographic, historian James Higgins predicted six years ago that other diseases will emerge from China. History proved Higgins and others right. Although quite different, eerie parallels exist between the influenza and coronavirus pandemics. Making the situation even worse, the outbreak of influenza continued affecting immigrant communities in Denver especially hard as the rest of the area began to recover. 

 Looking back and analyzing what happened during the influenza pandemic of 100 years ago informs how to cope with the present reality of COVID-19. Recognizing how the community battled its way through a similar crisis gives hope that society will recover and learn from every challenge. 

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