Using State Docs to Look Back at the Spanish Flu Pandemic in North Carolina 100 Years Ago
Author: Denise Jones, State Publications Clearinghouse Liaison
Older, significant state agency publications have been digitized by the Government and Heritage Library and are available online. By looking back through some of these digitized state documents you can find similarities between the influenza outbreak of 1918-1918 and the current COVID-19 pandemic. All of the publications mentioned can be found at http://ncgovdocs.org.
State and County Fairs Canceled
North Carolina Public Documents from 1919 contains reports from various state agencies. The report from the NC Department of Agriculture tells us the 1918 North Carolina State Fair was canceled. Most local county fairs around North Carolina were also canceled. Influenza created food shortages and hunger issues. The Department of Agriculture told their Home Demonstration Agents to drop their prearranged plans and “do what she could in her county to establish soup kitchens for the benefit of those who were unable to help themselves.” Over 50 agents responded “immediately” to organize communities to assist with meals. Eventually 75 community kitchens were established.
School and Museum Closings
A report from Attorney General, James Manning, told of schools throughout the state being closed by the county boards of health. A report from the curator from the State Museum (now the NC Museum of Natural Sciences) stated that the museum had to close “during the worst of the influenza epidemic.”
In the General Assembly’s session laws from 1917, you can read the quarantine law (Session law 263) passed by the legislature in response to the influenza outbreak. Before the law was enacted individual towns, cities and counties were on their own for handling contagious infections like the influenza pandemic. In addition to influenza the law addressed “other disease declared by the North Carolina Board of Health to be infectious and contagious.” Among other things the new law established county quarantine officers, required reporting of disease, and established punishments for violations of the new law. Punishments included fines and imprisonment.
But disobeying and disregarding quarantines existed then too. An article in the Bulletin of the North Carolina Board of Health, Volume 32, told of a group of “prominent citizens” who discussed how annoying they found quarantine to be. It went on to report that the group had gone about their business despite a contagious disease. No one in group considered it a “dishonorable or dangerous thing.”
As now, there was concern that winter would bring a recurrence of the disease. An article in the October 2019 issue of the Health Bulletin stated, “The epidemic of influenza will recur this winter if the germ that causes it is not worn out in killing people …..” The article goes to point out that “infective germs gain rather than lose virulence during an epidemic.” The virus mutations we are seeing now and the prevention of spread are much the same as then. Masks were not mentioned but quarantining, avoiding, crowds and covering your face when coughing or sneezing was emphasized frequently. One article concluded with “What is the moral difference between shooting a person in the dark and spreading contagion that kills him?”