Then vs. Now: COVID surpasses Spanish flu death toll

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — We have hit an unwanted milestone. COVID-19 has now killed more Americans than the 1918 Spanish flu, making this our country’s deadliest pandemic.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that it often repeats itself.

“In some ways, these two things are really quite similar, in that people were sort of surprised that this was happening here in Nashville,” says Dr. Carole Bucy, Davidson County historian.

She reflects on the wave of flu infections that swept over the town in 1918. She says the way people reacted then versus now is starkly different.

“There was no evidence in the newspapers and the accounts of the 1918 to 19 flu, that showed any politicalizing,” Bucy says. “The country very much wanted to unite, because everyone knew that it was not just a localized thing it had spread around the world.”

Accustomed to combatting widespread disease, the community essentially closed for three weeks without question.

“In the interest of containing the disease, they asked all the churches to close. They closed the schools and the movie theaters for a few short weeks,” she continues, “but it wasn’t for six months, nine months, anything like that.”

Masks went on and quarantines happened regularly.

“A sign was put on your house or something to notify people, even the postal delivery person ‘don’t stop at this house.'”

Outbreaks occurred in large gatherings.

“In Nashville, very quickly, they realized that the hot spot was out in the dormitories at the Dupont Powder Plant where we have lots of young women and some young men living in very tight confined quarters,” says Bucy.

Dupont Power Plant, Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives
Dupont Power Plant, Courtesy Tennessee State Library and Archives

They even experienced a second wave of the Spanish flu that hit in 1919.

“This is sort of like the Delta variant today that has come back,” she explains.

Bucy thinks the biggest difference between then and now is mistrust, which is a change even from the 60s when the polio vaccine was administered.

“When the Salk vaccine came out, there were no people saying you shouldn’t get this,” she remembers,
You lined up at your elementary school on a Saturday and Sunday and got the sugar cube.”

She suspects the explosion of technology helped spur the mental shift.

“It’s partly because of our access to an excessive amount of communication information, our inability to discern what’s fact, from fiction.”

Yet, the same advancements in technology can be credited for the quick development of the current vaccine.

And just as the flu continues to impact us today, Bucy suspects we will be dealing with COVID-19, in some capacity, for generations to come.


Currently, fewer than half of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. News 2 takes you inside the debate with ‘Moving the Needlespecial reports. Keep up with our continuing coverage on WKRN.com.

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