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We've been here before: The Flu of 1918

The city went under quarantine as the flu spread throughout the nation, killing 200 in Kokomo

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memorial park

BURIAL GROUNDS — Kokomo Memorial Park Cemetery is under construction in 1918.

County and city officials wasted no time establishing a perimeter around the town. In effect, Kokomo was in quarantine.

The virus had spread globally thanks largely to one conveniently opportunistic characteristic: multiple hosts congregating in close quarters. This viral strain was an airborne disease-causing organism that loved crowds. In some cities, masks were required by law. It was insidious; virtually anywhere humans gathered, the virus joined them. And spread – fast.

And it killed with savage efficiency.

Casket-makers could barely keep up with demand. As hospital wards swelled, nurses would actually put toe-tags on the living in anticipation of the inevitable. Physicians reported patients – often otherwise healthy young adults -- dying within 12 hours of being diagnosed. Death came after raging fever (the victim’s hair often fell out) and intense hemorrhaging from the ears and nose. As lungs filled with fluid, victims literally drowned in their own internal tissues.

The imagery was indelible, and incredible. American cities looked like scenes right out of the Black Plague in medieval Europe, with mass graves and dead bodies left on curbs to be picked up by horse-drawn hearses. In a 31-day span across September and October 1918, 195,000 Americans died, reportedly the deadliest 31 days ever in United States history.

It was, of course, the 1918 influenza epidemic. And the effort to curtail its devastating effects then is our very playbook for today.

To wit, on Monday, Oct. 7, Kokomo citizens were formally informed that by official decree "every place in Kokomo and Howard county where the public are in the habit of congregating must close and remain closed until further instructions are issued” (Kokomo Daily Tribune, Oct. 7, 1918). To leave “no doubts or misunderstandings regarding who or what businesses are affected,” the newspaper listed the following that were now officially off-limits for public health reasons until further notice:

All churches.

All theaters, including movies.

All pool rooms.

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All schools, including private, parochial and the Kokomo Business College.

All places where soft drinks are dispensed, including soda fountains and candy kitchens.

All lodge buildings or rooms.

All club rooms.

All city, county and township schools were ordered closed. Drug stores were allowed to stay open, but were prohibited from selling soft drinks, so patrons wouldn’t gather and mingle. Rural and neighborhood groceries were permitted to remain open at their own discretion, but were instructed to not allow any “loafing on the premises.”

By late 1918, Kokomo and Howard County residents had responded admirably, and “no violation or attempted violation of the order” was reported. “The public is comporting itself with calmness,” the Tribune said on Oct. 16, acknowledging that a “general spirit of co-operation” was evident in support of a public health department “acting in the best interests of the city.” The closings order was amended shortly thereafter, and rescinded altogether by the end of the year.

When World War I ended on Nov. 11, the pandemic began to abate as well. It’s thought that the flu simply “ran out of fuel” as immunities hardened and efforts like quarantines and restrictions on public gatherings deprived the virus of new hosts. Howard County had its share of suffering, with businesses “being at a standstill” and hundreds of employees idled. And we lost many friends and neighbors – about 200 victims, the Tribune reported on Dec. 31. Across Indiana, by the end of the scourge, Marion and Lake counties had reported the most influenza-related deaths.

The personal physical and mental toll of the experience was perhaps most vividly detailed by the story of William Riley, who lived on Elm Street on Kokomo’s north side. Seven members of the Riley family were confined to their beds with influenza, and the father had come to the newspaper office Nov. 26 to report the death of his daughter Florence. The four-year-old child had died that very night, the latest local victim of the epidemic.

Young and otherwise in good shape, Riley looked “pale, haggard and utterly worn-out.” As the only healthy human in his home, he said, he was providing all the nursing care himself. For two weeks he had been so busy caring for his family that he hadn’t even bothered to change his clothes.