Pick and Sledge

Curious Stories from the American West

100 Years Ago Today: Influenza Pandemic Waning, Still Deadly in CO

The flu pandemic of 1918-1919 (aka La Grippe, aka Spanish flu) was responsible for the deaths of at least 50 million people worldwide, which was more than 3% of the world’s population at that time. It is estimated that 1/3 of the world’s population was affected by flu symptoms during the pandemic.

In Colorado, at the height of the pandemic between September 1918 and June 1919, an estimated 7,783 people died of flu-related symptoms, such as pneumonia. Historians think that throughout the U.S. the flu caused half a million deaths. And it wasn’t just the very old and the very young that died either. Otherwise healthy thirty-somethings were sometimes more likely to die than the elderly or young.

Add these devastating figures to the 20 million combat-related deaths during WWI and you can start to imagine the tragic worldwide destruction of life between 1914 and 1919. 70 million dead in just five years. To get to that figure, you would need to take the sum population of all of the top-10 most populated cities in the U.S. In 2018, and TRIPLE it.

By January of 1919 the worst of the flu pandemic was over in Colorado, but don’t tell that to some of the smaller towns like Montrose. On January 15, 1919 the Montrose Daily Press reported on five flu-related deaths of their townspeople, all given space on the front page of the newspaper. Also on the front page is a notice that Busy Corner Pharmacy will lock their doors at 7pm on account of the quarantine.

It also didn’t help that Montrose was experiencing one of the coldest Januaries on record. Only two days out of the first two weeks of 1919 had not dropped below zero at some point throughout the day.

Quarantine was one measure of the day to prevent the flu from spreading. In Teller County, CO a mask law was enforced in December after the county experienced 70 flu related deaths. As early as October 1918, cities and towns around Colorado closed colleges and universities, and some places ordered suspensions “on churches, schools, movies, theaters, and public gatherings of all kinds.

Eventually these measures helped curb the spread of the flu, but even today, 100 years later, scientists aren’t exactly sure why the H1N1 virus, aka the colloquially mis-named “Spanish flu“, was so deadly, nor why it disappeared as quickly as it came.

For more reading, here’s a great in-depth article from University of Michigan called Denver, Colorado and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

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