By Lucas Vader
With the COVID-19 pandemic being a bit more than just a hot topic right now, discussions have cropped up occasionally about the mega-crisis from over 100 years ago: the Spanish Flu.
From the standpoint of the Surface Creek Valley Historical Society (SCVHS), this is more than just a fun fact.
With the current pandemic in mind, SCVHS Vice President Jerry McHugh began searching the digitized collections of the Surface Creek Champion and the Delta Independent for news on the Spanish Flu, which at that time, was just referred to as the flu, or influenza.
On a note of optimism, Coronavirus suddenly didn’t look too bad when compared side-by-side with last century’s sickness.
The Nov. 8, 1918 edition of the Delta Independent reported that Delta County had had 191 additional confirmed cases of the flu since the previous edition on Nov. 1. What’s more, most of the obituaries in those November editions explicitly stated death from influenza or pneumonia that resulted from influenza.
A precursor to the Nov. 1 obituaries read, “The death toll of this community, as elsewhere, has been unusually heavy, and owing to the fact that in many instances, other members of the family were also suffering from flu, details are difficult to obtain. Illness of attending physicians has also precluded the possibility of obtaining some information.”
Seven obituaries then followed, six of which attributed the deaths to influenza.
These triple-digit numbers were not overall out of the ordinary for some time, as in February of 1919, a line-item breakdown shows the confirmed cases from each day of the week — from as low as 11 to as high as 62 — ultimately adding up to 183 cases that week.
“There’s a lot of interesting stories about that time,” McHugh said. “It made me feel a little bit less lonely about the whole shelter-in-place thing.”
Most of the county news on that pandemic came in through the Delta Independent, reporting more stand-out losses, such as the son of Fred R. Burritt, who in June of 1920, died only three months after his mother because of the flu. This particular report came four months after the Delta Independent published the brief, “FLU SITUATION NOW VERY SATISFACTORY IN DELTA.”
In this brief, it is revealed that, despite surrounding towns’ efforts to quarantine against the flu, Delta did not make those efforts, at least not to the same degree. “While contrary to the precedent established by surrounding towns, Delta did not put on a quarantine, it is believed that the worst is over,” the Feb. 20, 1920 edition of the Delta Independent reported. The brief goes on to report that schools, churches and other public places have continued to run and that “within the city limits there have been no deaths, though several deaths have occurred on the nearby mesas and valleys.”
This brief came immediately after the article, “WELL KNOWN LADY GIVES UP IN THE STRUGGLE OF LIFE,” which was about the wife of Fred R. Burritt, previously mentioned.
And as things settled down, and the death rate decreased, that’s the approximate time that it was announced that a Delta County hospital would be built. On Jan. 2, 1920, the Delta Independent published the article, “DELTA COUNTY HOSPITAL NOW REPORTED TO BE A REALITY.”
“Do you remember what the ‘flu’ did to us last year, and how many loving homes were broken up forever because we did not have a place to take care of them?” the article said. “Well if the ‘flu’ or any other epidemic should hit us again to-day, it would find us in exactly the same fix, so it surely behooves us to get busy, mighty busy, and that right away.”
By two weeks later, the Delta Independent reported that the new hospital was well underway, indicating that the process did indeed move quickly. This article asked for public donations and community generosity in raising funds for the project, calling it “increasingly evident that the hospital enterprise is about the most popular that has ever come before the county.”
One story “was about the fact that the Spanish Flu kind of led to the establishment of the Delta County Memorial,” McHugh said. In several articles, actually, the importance for building the hospital was backed by the “what-if” prospect of another massive virus. The hospital was not yet called Delta County Memorial Hospital and it was in a different location, down in town instead of up on the hill. However, it was through the hospital board’s efforts to move and expand their hospital, meaning that Delta’s current hospital is evolved from that early 1920s rendition.
While there have been a fair share of epidemics, which are isolated to just part of the world, true pandemics are extremely rare. Of course, the current COVID-19 pandemic falls into that category, as did the Spanish Flu approximately 100-102 years ago.
“There’s a couple things relatable between the two [pandemics],” McHugh said. “I mean, the fact that it’s almost exactly a hundred years apart and the same kind of thing’s happening, businesses shutting down, but you know, we don’t have it as bad as we did then.”
The Delta Independent at the time seemed to take higher priority in reporting on the Spanish Flu than the Surface Creek Champion did. Throughout the Spanish Flu’s run, as McHugh pointed out, there were similar discussions of business versus public safety, quarantine and the whole works.