by Doug McClure
MONTPELIER – When the pandemic began in March, officials pointed to a number of stark differences between the influenza epidemic of 1918 and COVID-19. The 1918 “Spanish flu”, as it was known, killed an estimated 675,000 people in the United States. In Hardwick, almost 30 perished, according to Elizabeth Dow of the Hardwick Historical Society (HHS) in a Fall 2018 HHS journal article.
One difference was the casualties of the 1918 flu were mostly the young and healthy, while COVID-19’s mortality and infection rate centered on older, medically compromised populations. When the pandemic began, experts predicted COVID-19 might follow a trajectory similar to 1918, with multiple waves, but hoped any subsequent waves would not emulate those of 1918, which killed most of its victims in the second wave.
In Vermont, the demographics of who is most affected by COVID-19 have changed since March and April. There is now community transmission in Vermont, state health officials said last Friday, despite much of the recent transmission originating from the “broom ball” incident from last month in Washington County. The age group with the most COVID cases in both Caledonia and Lamoille counties is 20-29 years of age. In both counties, cases for those under 29 account for nearly half of the total cases. The majority of Orleans County cases continue to occur in those over 60.
The 2020 COVID-19 could follow a pattern similar to the 1918 flu, with a milder first wave and much more severe second wave. In Dow’s article, she noted that during 1918, “of the 77 deaths [in Hardwick], 28 died of flu. 22 of the 28 died between October 1 and December 1.” She found the youngest victim in the first wave was 5 and the oldest was 88 years of age. During the second wave, Dow found victims ranging from in utero to 45 years of age but clarified that “in none of my reading have I found mention of fetus deaths as a result of the [mother] having the flu.”
Gazette articles from 1918 echoed reporting often seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the October 17, 1918, Hardwick Gazette, the U.S. Public Health Service issued an official health bulletin on influenza. It led with “…Spanish authorities repudiate any claim to influenza as a ‘Spanish’ disease. If the people of this country do not take care the epidemic will become so widespread through the United States that we shall hear the disease called ‘American’ influenza… When crowding is unavoidable, such as in street cars, care should be taken to keep the face so turned as to not inhale directly the air breathed out by another person. It is especially important to beware of the person who coughs or sneezes without covering his mouth and nose.” Nurses or attendants were advised to wear a mask while near a patient.
In that same issue, it was noted for those in South Walden, “anyone wanting a mask for protection against influenza may get them at the home of Mrs. A. F. Grow or Mrs. C. G. Farrington.”