Omaha is treating the COVID-19 pandemic better than the 1918 flu epidemic

OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) – 471,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the United States. Go back about 100 years and records show the influenza epidemic killed 650,000 Americans.

The Douglas County’s COVID-19 death toll rose to 634 on Thursday. Omaha has twice as many deaths compared to the 1918 flu epidemic – nearly 1,200, one of the highest death rates in the country.

6 News examined the six-month expansion from the fall of 1918 and the notable similarities compared to today’s pandemic.

“However, the population was one-third its current size,” said Alex Navarro, a historian at the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. His team studied how several cities dealt with the pandemic in 1918 and what we can learn from it today.

Back then, Omaha leaders issued masked orders, promoted social distancing, and limited large gatherings.

Sound familiar?

6 News examined a series of articles written in two newspapers: The Omaha Daily News and The Omaha Daily Bee. There is a story where you can’t stand on the tram to limit the congestion.

Some shops – such as theaters, movie houses, and bowling alleys – closed in 1918.

“There have been many examples of pushing back and many people who disobeyed mask orders or who continued to have meetings,” said historian Alex Navarro.

America was at war, so 100 years ago news coverage dominated the front page. But when parents died of influenza at alarming rates and churches looked after their children, mixed messages came from the same Omaha health commissioner who had taken drastic steps to stop the spread at the beginning of the epidemic. He believed that the Omahan’s personal responsibility, not the shutdown orders, would make the difference and downplay the epidemic.

After a month-long layoff, the stores reopened. The parades resumed ignoring social distancing guidelines.

“Omaha had a second set of cases this fall wave. It was just as bad as the initial spike. People didn’t take it seriously, ”said Navarro. “Omaha is an example that it’s up to you to do the right thing when you get rid of the rather strict public health measures – and nobody likes them. For many people, you give them mixed messages: “It’s serious, but not that serious. Because if it were serious, they would keep the orders. ‘”

According to Navarro, Omaha fared worse than most other cities during the 1918 influenza epidemic.

“It seems that Omaha didn’t have as high a compliance level as other cities,” he said.

But when it comes to learning from history, here’s what: Researchers found that most communities coped with the first wave of COVID – and isolation – better than they did 100 years ago. Remember, the Omaha flu epidemic ended in February, six months after the first cases.

“We did better in spring 2020 than in autumn 1918,” said Navarro. “I’m glad I am a historian, not a public health politician. Getting high levels of compliance over a long period of time is really difficult – closures and masks. People are social beings and we want to hang out with friends, family, and co-workers. We can interrupt this for a short time if the risks are high. But it’s harder to keep that up for a few months. “

During the height of the Omaha flu epidemic, people were fined for leaving their homes in quarantine. In fact, the health department put a poster on the front door to let the neighbors know they were sick.

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