102 years since last contagion lockdown
Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in the 2018 Carson Valley Almanac. It has been updated with information about the coronavirus outbreak.
The last time Carson Valley experienced anything like the current coronavirus outbreak lockdown was more than a century ago when the influenza pandemic raged across the globe in October 1918, turning what should have been a celebration of the end of the First World War into something much closer to home.
The 1918-19 pandemic took the lives of 20-50 million people, representing roughly 1 percent of the world’s population. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about a third of the world’s population came down with the disease.
And the disease did not limit itself to the very young and very old. Nearly half the deaths from the disease in 1918 were in adults 20-40 years old, according to the CDC.
Nevada National Guard Historian Lt. Emerson Marcus said the Silver State had 4,000 confirmed cases, according to the Nevada Health Board, in a state with a total population of about 80,000 people. The 1918 flu killed about 675,000 nationwide.
One of the first things Record-Courier readers learned about the Spanish Influenza was that it probably didn’t originate in Spain.
The first notice of the epidemic was published by The R-C on Oct. 18, 1918, and took up three columns on the local page.
While there was no such thing as a flu vaccination in those days, the advice in that first article is still sound today.
“It is very important that every person who becomes sick with influenza should go home at once and go to bed,” officials advised.
Readers learned that influenza was caused by a germ that was spread by coughing, sneezing, “forceful talking,” or from spit on the sidewalk.
“Health authorities everywhere recognize the very close relation between its spread and overcrowded homes,” the notice said. “The value of fresh air through open windows cannot be overemphasized.”
At first the disease seemed like something that killed people far away. On Oct. 25, The R-C reported on the memorial service for Clarence Frevert, who died of the flu while he was in the Army at Fort Lawrence, Kan.
In the same issue, the paper reported on the death of Henry Heiss in Quebec, Canada, from the flu.
A Halloween party at the Minden Inn was canceled due to the flu.
Meanwhile, several cases of the flu were discovered in Carson Valley, prompting members of the Douglas County Board of Health to prohibit public gatherings and close theaters, churches and schools. The green house at the outskirts of Gardnerville was taken over for an isolation hospital with 14 beds, but because of the spread of the disease across the West, staffing it was difficult.
An isolation hospital had been established, where as many as a dozen patients were housed.
Nurses were in short supply, with many working with influenza patients catching the disease themselves.
“Owing to the fact that the disease is taxing the nurses in other communities to the limit, it is impossible to secure help,” the paper reported. “In the name of humanity, Dr. Thompson appeals for help. It is not necessary that you be a trained nurse, anyone with some knowledge of caring for the sick will be of great assistance at this moment.”
Nurses at the Green House said the situation there was untenable as the facility filled up.
County health officials ordered the basement of Douglas County High School converted to a hospital ward.
“It was believed last week that the influenza epidemic in this community was well in hand, but developments of the past few days have proven that we were too sanguine,” R-C Publisher Bert Selkirk wrote in the Nov. 1 edition. “New cases are developing daily and there is no telling how far it will reach into local homes before it has run its course.”
“New cases are being reported daily,” was the report on Nov. 15, 1918.
Two nurses were reported down with the disease, with only one left to care for the sick.
According to the newspaper, the Washoe people were hard hit by the disease with numerous cases reported. Two had died.
County commissioners passed an ordinance requiring residents to wear masks in public, effective Nov. 12, 1918. Second violations were punishable to a fine of up to $100 or 30 days in jail.
Despite being home to fewer than 2,000 residents in 1918, one of the key challenges for health officials coping with the Spanish Flu was communications.
The Record-Courier published a Nov. 15, 1918, plea from the phone company for people to stay off the lines so that calls from the sick could get through.
“The telephone company does not ask its subscribers to deny themselves the use of the wires, but ‘visiting’ on the lines for long periods and the like may do great injustices to those who have sickness in their homes, who need service for doctor and other emergency calls.”
The effects of the influenza outbreak on residents were recounted every week on the front page of The Record-Courier and its chief writer, Bert Selkirk.
The R-C carried a regular tally of the deaths in the early days of the outbreak, with three reported on Nov 1 and five more reported on Nov. 8, 1918. The following week there were two more deaths.
The Douglas County Board of Health asked that residents wear masks.
“You’re urgently appealed, in the name of humanity, to wear a mask to prevent the spread of this highly contagious disease,” the Nov. 1 notice said.
For the first time in November 1918, no flu deaths were reported in the Nov. 22 edition of The R-C, and the quarantine was lifted the following week after no new cases were reported.
Not two weeks later, schools were closed due to the new cases of influenza. A 44-year-old Minden woman, H.M. Everett, died from a case of pneumonia stemming from the disease. The disease struck entire families: both her husband and son also came down with the flu, according to the Dec. 6, 1918, edition.
That edition included a story about a prominent Mono Lake resident who died of the flu.
According to the report, the man’s entire family was sick.
By the end of November, the reports of people dead from the flu had stopped and county commissioners lifted the quarantine that had been in effect for six weeks. Those in the isolation hospital’s wards recovered and had been discharged.
Public gatherings were once more permitted, and the Lutherans held a thanksgiving service in their little church near the East Fork of the Carson River.
That celebration was premature, with several new cases of the influenza keeping the schools closed in December.
Genoa resident Julian Poirier reported that more than 70 people in Nevada’s first town had been stricken, but there were no deaths. Selkirk reported that while the official quarantine had been lifted, people were still following the protocols.
By the following week, public gatherings were again banned to prevent the spread of the disease.
By the first week of January the ban was lifted again and people were gathering for church services, meetings and movies.
But that didn’t mean the epidemic was forgotten.
“During the past few … months the people of this community have been bowed in sadness and deep sorrow by the taking away of several of our best known and most highly respected young men,” Selkirk said in a story about the death of 14-year-old Arthur Settelmeyer appearing Jan. 6, 1919.
By February, the Nevada Board of Health was looking back at the previous year.
The state estimated the first reported case of influenza occurred Oct. 1, 1918, in Reno. Cases were reported in Las Vegas and Elko, before the first in Carson City on Oct. 15.
The state estimated that 4,000-5,000 people were affected by the disease.
“From several sections of the state, appeals came to the State Board of Health for help to care for the sick as there was an insufficiency of both physicians and nurses to do the work.”
In March, The R-C reported a third flare-up of influenza.
“For weeks no cases of influenza were reported in the county,” Editor Bert Selkirk reported. “Wednesday evening Sheriff Nielsen reported that 14 cases had been quarantined by the board of health. It is estimated there are about 75 cases in the county.”
Selkirk said cases in the third bout were mild and those who were ill seemed to be getting better.
School was back in session, but students were working Saturdays to make up the time they’d lost to the epidemic.
By May they’d caught up and in June, school let out on schedule.
The final burst of deaths attributed to the influenza outbreak occurred in February 1920 when a Coleville and two Carson Valley residents succumbed to the flu.
Antelope Valley resident John Carney, 46, died in Coleville. Closer to home, Fredricksburg resident Mary Rose McCollum, 28, and 81-year-old Valley pioneer Agnes Bull died in Sheridan.
A dozen cases were reported in Douglas County, according to State Board of Health Director Dr. S.L. Lee.
“Up to the present time,” Dr. Lee said, “there is no cause for wide alarm, as at this period last year practically the entire state was stricken and the medical fraternity driven to its utmost resources to lend assistance, while it was necessary to import nurses to help handle the situation.”
One of the heroes of the Carson Valley influenza epidemic, nurse Carrie Wilson, died in May 1920 after an operation in Reno.
“During the influenza epidemic in Carson Valley, Mrs. Wilson served in the capacity of nurse in many homes and her work was highly commended by both physicians and those whom she served.”