Nashville historian compares COVID-19 to Spanish influenza of 1918

Coronavirus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – As we continue to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, we look back to when Nashville fought the Spanish Flu .

In 1918 Nashville, and the rest of the country, was focused on World War I. But come October, an epidemic known as the Spanish Influenza started to make front-page news.

Davidson County historian Dr. Carole Bucy reads from the Tennesseean, “This is below the war news keep in mind, All Nashville is Fighting Epidemic, is the headline.”

Bucy explained diseases, like yellow fever and measles, made Nashvillians accustomed to fighting illness.

“We were not a polarized society,” said Bucy, “There was a consensus in that particular time that the public health officials knew a whole lot more than the rest of the population.”

Opportunist capitalized on the mounting fear.

“A tremendous number of ads for tonics [in the newspapaer], claiming the cure-all for influenza, bunions, you name it,” said Bucy.

But with no real cure, the geographically smaller Nashville, saw numbers spike.

“City Hospital Full – 50 Calls Turned Down,” Bucy said one headline read.

An overwhelming amount of patients needed medical care.

“The city hospital had 1 African American nurse who had to care for 60 patients,” explains Bucy.

All churches and select schools closed their doors.

Reading another headline Bucy said, “County schools are closed to curb influenza, municipal schools will continue to keep open.”

County schools closed, in part, because the DuPont Plant in Old Hickory was hit hardest. A cluster outbreak similar to COVID-19.

“Prison and the nursing homes are the comparisons here,” says Bucy, “because people living in close proximity here spread the disease.”

Bucy continued by explaining, a travel ban between Nashville and Old Hickory was put in place.

“But the Tennesseean reported that the travel ban was not effective. It wasn’t keeping people from going back and forth.”

So quarantine was made mandatory and it was public knowledge.

“Houses and families were quarantined with a sign on the door – do not enter quarantined,” Bucy explained.

In the end, the Spanish Flu killed many.

“We had almost 1,000 deaths in about a 3-week period,” said Bucy.

But it’s the length of time, Bucy noted, that is the real difference between then and today’s ongoing battle with COVID-19.

“It wasn’t a 4-month ordeal with no future insight.”

Masks were also a staple during 1918. Many believed it was their first line of defense to stop sickness.

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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