Dispatches from Fresno, 1918-19: Following the ‘Spanish’ Flu Pandemic in Real Time, Part XVIII

In the second week of 1919, Fresno leaders finally forged a compromise on the question of who would determine emergency policies for the ongoing health crisis—and for future ones. New influenza cases, meanwhile, continued to decline, suggesting that the second wave of the deadly virus was coming to a close. But local health authorities insisted that residents must not let their guard down until the pandemic is over, recommending the very same measures embraced by experts today.

Day 96—Wednesday, Jan. 8, 1919

“Behind closed door,” declared the Fresno Morning Republican on Wednesday, January 8, “the Fresno Medical Society last night adopted resolutions indorsing [sic] the action of the Fresno board of health” to stop the spread of the flu. The society also denounced the Board of Trustee’s refusal to enact the Board of Health’s proposed ordinance and backed the Board of Health’s decision to resign.

The members of the Board of Health declined to say whether they planned to rescind their resignation, per the request of Fresno mayor William F. Toomey.

In the meantime, city health officer Carleton Mathewson reported that 219 Fresnans had died from the flu since the outbreak in October. He added that 5345 people—more than 10% of the city’s population—had caught the virus since it first appeared in the area in October.

The Morning Republican also announced that Fresno High School had mailed a second week’s worth of assignments to students working at home. The students had until January 13 to return their work. Teachers, added the paper, had begun composing a third set of assignments.

Day 97—Thursday, Jan. 9, 1919

DR. G. L. Long, Fresno County health officer, urged residents to stay home if they want to beat the flu, reported the Morning Republican on January 9. “I am confident that schools could be reopened with safety within ten days if folks simply would stick to the firesides and to their front or back yards,” he stated the night before. “This business of visiting and going to town is what has been spreading the influenza.”

Long’s admonition seems perfectly tailored to our own viral epidemic. Indeed, the county’s current health officer, Dr. Rais Vohra, advises exactly the same thing. With reports that house parties and family gatherings are fueling the spread of COVID-19 here in the Valley (as well as elsewhere across the country), Vohra pushed Fresnans to avoid social gatherings. “You cannot let down your guard wherever you are,” remarked Vohra recently. “We let down our guard when we are among friends and family.”

Day 98—Friday, Jan. 10, 1919

The Board of Health and the Board of Trustees have agreed to plan that will “bring about harmony,” declared the Morning Republican on Friday, January 10. With new flu cases continuing to decline in the city, the two boards had determined that for the time being the only health measures necessary—beyond the mask mandate—are an immediate enforcement of quarantine, the isolation of all flu patients, and “a rigid daily inspection” by Dr. Mathewson at the expense of the Fresno Merchants Association.

In the case of another flare-up, however, the Board of Trustees agreed that it “would at once pass the ordinance which was defeated by them and which provided for the closing of theaters, public meetings, saloons, places of amusement etc., completely and for the closing of all places of business at 7 p.m. daily.”

The Board of Health allowed that it would only use the powers granted in this ordinance “in an extremity.” “The purpose of this agreement,” concluded the paper, “would be to prevent the board of health from being left without any power whatever should there be another flu flare-up.”

Day 99—Saturday, Jan. 11, 1919

With the daily new flu cases in Fresno down to 30-35 a day, stated the Fresno Morning Republican on January 11, Day 99 of the pandemic, Dr. Mathewson urged the city to take the “drastic steps” necessary to stamp out the disease for good. “The flu seems to be temporarily at a standstill,” he said, “and now is the time to fight it.”

Mathewson insisted that Fresno must isolate every case “and not let the disease gain such headway again that it is likely to pass from our control.”

City residents also must be even more vigilant with masking up in public. “Everyone should wear masks with greater care than ever,” Mathewson argued. “The masks recently have been more properly worn than formerly, but I see on the streets and elsewhere every day men and women wearing masks covering their mouths, but not covering their noses. Let everybody understand that now is the time to keep awake and not the time to get careless.”

Proponents of reopening schools this fall would do well to heed Dr. Mathewson’s wise counsel about mask vigilance—as well as Dr. Long’s call to stop the “business of visiting” friends and family members—until our own pandemic is stamped out for good, too. “Perhaps the biggest mistake many folks [today] are making with face masks—besides not wearing them in public at all,” notes a recent MarketWatch story, “is pulling the facial coverings down so that the nose is exposed.” In fact, according to new research in the journal Cell, nose cells are “significantly more likely to become infected and shed virus compared to the throat or lungs.” So, as Dr. Long understood a century ago, masks must be worn not just over mouths but over noses as well to be effective.

In 1918-19, as in 2020, public health officials agreed that properly worn masks and social distancing are the keys to beating a viral pandemic. Designing a vaccine may be rocket science, but preventing the spread of a virus is not.

Ethan J. Kytle is a professor of history at California State University, Fresno. His latest book, coauthored with Blain Roberts, is Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy, which was published by The New Press in 2018. Ethan’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Civil War Monitor, and the Fresno BeeFor more installments in our Dispatches from Fresno series, click here.