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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Mar 23

Lessons of past show potential impact of coronavirus

Posted on March 23, 2020 at 2:54 PM by Jenny Levins

In my lifetime I have never experienced a period like what we are going through now with the coronavirus. The lifestyle changes we have experienced over the past two weeks would have been unimaginable just a month ago. It would have been before anyone living in Iredell County now would have been born, but our country has seen this before.

Union Grove native Marshall Gaston Wooten was 25 years old when he reported to the draft board in Statesville on Sept. 12, 1918. Marshall, who is buried at the Union Grove United Methodist Church, was a farmer just like his parents Leander and Adaline. In a little over a month on Oct. 16, 1918, Marshall would die not from combat in World War I, but rather from influenza and pneumonia. Marshall was a victim of the great Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918.

They called it the Spanish Flu, but Spain has no claim to its beginning. It was first reported in Spain simply because Spain was neutral in World War I and the press there was not censored as it was in countries like the United States, Great Britain, and Germany who were in warfare. The combatants at war were anxious not to allow their enemies to know of any weakness. It should be noted though that 80 percent of the population in Spain would be infected.

The United States lost 116,516 men from combat and other causes during WWI, but those numbers pale beside what our country lost to influenza. Out of the over 22 million Americans who would catch the flu an estimated 675,000 Americans would die from the influenza and pneumonia that resulted from the infection.

Americans had suffered from the flu before, but this time it was different. Death came fast. Many died within 48 hours. Some called it the “blue death” in reference to the blue skin color of the victims. It would start with a fever and then the lungs would start to fill with fluid.  Their skin would turn dark blue as their respirator system failed and their body tissue was starved for oxygen.

Older forms of influenza or “the grippe” rarely killed and usually affected the elderly and those in poor health. The 1918 influenza flu preyed on the young and healthy between the ages of 20 and 40. Today, we know that it is an influenza A virus strain that causes the bodies immune system to react violently. The stronger your immune system the harder it hit you.

The medicines and folk remedies used in the past were now useless. The first instance in N.C. was reported on Sept. 17, 1918 in Wilmington, but it quickly spread west across the state. Cases of typhoid fever and tuberculosis made diagnosis slow. There were no antibiotics to thrown at the disease. The State Board of Health recommended “sunshine and open air” while doctors tried calomel (mercury) without effect.

On Oct. 3, 1918, N.C. Governor Thomas Bickett and Dr. W.S. Rankin, secretary of the State Board of Health instructed North Carolinians to prohibit “schools, moving picture shows, fairs, circuses, and other public gatherings including church services and Sunday schools” under Chapter 62, Public Laws of 1911, sections 9, 10, 14, and 15. The infected were to be quarantined.

Iredell County, much like the rest of the country, was unprepared for such a health crisis. There was no local health department or major hospital and only a handful of doctors and nurses. The American Red Cross, already hard at work supporting the war effort, led the fight to organize volunteers to visit the sick and deliver food and medicine. Emergency kitchens were set up across the country to cook for those too sick to leave bed.

More than 13,000 would die in N.C. which often included the doctors and volunteers trying to help the sick. Soldiers living in close quarters such as Camp Greene outside Charlotte were especially affected. There are estimates that half of the 80,000 people who lived in Charlotte and Camp Greene were infected with more than 1,200 dying within the first few months.

It’s believed that World War I caused the deaths of over 16 million people, both combatant and civilian. Worldwide between 50 and 100 million died from influenza making it the deadliest illness in history. Over 25 percent of the U.S. population would be infected and in one year the life expectancy dropped by 12 years.

As the crisis passed N.C. experienced a boom in the construction of hospitals and health care facilities. The influenza of 1918 had a fatality rate of 2.5 percent. A report released in February by the Journal of the American Medical Association puts the fatality rate for the coronavirus (COVID-19) at 2.3 percent. Looking out at the warm spring-like days we are having makes it hard to believe we are in a crisis, but remember this before you go to a party.

Filled with patriotic fever the city of Philadelphia ignored the warnings and held a Liberty parade in support of the war on Sept. 19, 1918. An estimated 200,000 people came to the event. Within 72 hours of the parade every hospital bed in Philadelphia was filled as 45,000 Philadelphians came down with influenza. In six weeks more than 12,000 had died.

By

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

Published on March 22, 2020 in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Lessons of past show potential impact of coronavirus.”