Pandemics in History: A Dispatch from A Librarian at Home

In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 and ensure that hospitals are not overwhelmed, New York City and State officials have closed NYC Public Schools and Libraries (including CUNY Libraries, as of today). Non-essential businesses around the city (including your favorite restaurant) are set to close this evening and theaters and large venues with more than 500 seats closed earlier this week.

I spent much of the weekend, as many of you likely did, preoccupied with pandemic panic. Librarians and educators across the country have been sharing information about school and library closures (or decisions to keep these spaces open) and the need to balance serving the needs of our patrons and students with the recommended practices for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. I wondered if any previous pandemics in history had resulted in the kind of extreme public health measures that NYC officials put in place this week and whether or not they had worked. And I figured the best way to find out was to consult the New York Times historical database, which we have digital access to through the City Tech Library and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, which is accessible online through the Brooklyn Public Library system.

One of the most deadly pandemics to hit New York City was in 1918 when an influenza outbreak killed about 30,000 New Yorkers (and millions of people worldwide). There are important differences between the influenza pandemic and COVID virus in terms of pathology and there have also been great advances in medicine and public health infrastructure since 1918. However, more than 100 years after the 1918 influenza pandemic, there are some interesting parallels in terms of the social and political responses that we can learn from.

On October 5th, 1918, more than 150 people died and almost 1700 new cases of influenza were reported in NYC alone. In response, New York City Officials decided to limit the hours for non-essential businesses city-wide, and staggered business hours to reduce crowding in public spaces. City officials also “prescribed a schedule” for theaters and places of amusement (like movie theaters), which changed their programming to include public health announcements (remember, the internet didn’t exist). Some public spaces (including libraries) were closed entirely. Mass transit was not shut down, but public health officials cautioned that, “the greatest source of spread of the disease are crowded subway and elevated trains.” They also knew that while New Yorkers probably weren’t headed to the movies if they were sick with the flu, “sick people do go to work.” And this observation, which still rings true today, raises a lot of questions about how we contain the COVID19 virus by providing economic support to sick workers (and hourly wage workers who can’t work while businesses are closed).

Headline Brooklyn Daily Eagle Oct 5
Headline New York Times Oct 5

Meanwhile back in September 1918, Dr. Blue, the Surgeon General and the top health official in the United States, issued a public statement recommending that municipal authorities in places “threatened by the epidemic” close “churches, schools, theaters, and public institutions,” although he did not have the authority to demand municipal closures.

On October 3rd, following Dr. Blue’s recommendation, the state commissioner of health in Pennsylvania ordered “schools, churches, theatres, and all places of public assemblage” in Philadelphia to close indefinitely. Other major cities including Trenton and Cincinnati similarly closed everything (#canceleverything) including churches and schools. But here in New York, the health commissioner, Dr. Copeland, resisted Dr. Blue’s recommendation and ignored public outcry; he refused to close schools, theaters, and public meeting spaces. Many NYC residents and businesses pleaded with the Mayor to take action, just as many residents took to Twitter urging our current Mayor, Bill De Blasio, to close schools and public libraries this past weekend.

On Oct 19th, almost 5000 new Influenza cases were reported, and Dr. Copeland told reporters that city authorities agreed with his decision to keep schools open and that the “chief difficulty” in keeping them running was, “an unusual amount of illness among teachers.”

Almost a month later, on November 17th, when the immediate public health threats of the pandemic began to wane, Copeland defended his decisions saying they kept “down the danger of panic” and “helped maintain the morale of New York City.” Copeland cited the crowded conditions in which many NYC residents lived and described how the public school system itself was “an important method of disease control” since teachers were given the responsibility of diagnosing children who appeared sick when arriving at school. Copeland also recounted the city’s successful “health control” measures including “keeping windows open” in schools which resulted in what he described as a “fine record” in terms of the mortality rate in NYC as compared to other cities.

By the statistics, NYC did fare a little better than some other major U.S. cities in terms of the percentage of deaths from influenza overall. So maybe Copeland was right about a few things including the importance of enforcing housing laws and scaling up public health services (although we now know that opening a few windows wont stop us from catching the flu). These statistics weren’t collected, but I wonder what percentage of NYC teachers died in 1918 given the (unofficial) public health role that Copeland thrust upon them. And I wonder if a public panic would have contributed to the death rate at all.

The “epidemic lessons” I take away from my deep dive into the 1918 influenza outbreak are: we need good public health infrastructure, labor laws, and safe housing to deal with a pandemic and its social and economic consequences. We also need to recognize the value of social services all the time, not just during a crisis. Lastly, we need quality information about how to protect ourselves and each other during this crisis. Thankfully, even though the City Tech Library is current closed, a lot of the resources we need are online. In 1918, they had to wait 6 weeks to get access to library resources!

Earlier this week, on the whiteboard near the entrance of the City Tech Library, I wrote: The Best Cure for Panic is Information. But information, especially mis-information can also drive panic. So don’t believe everything you read and if you need help figuring that out…Ask a Librarian.

All of the information cited and quoted here comes from articles published in the New York Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle between September 1918 and December 1918.

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