COVID-19 Pandemic: What History Tells Us

In 1918, the world was devastated by the influenza pandemic, which went on to kill about 50 million – 675,000 of those deaths in the United States. One-third of the world’s population (about half a billion people) had been infected.

As we face the current COVID-19 pandemic, one of the most vital tools in our arsenal for battling a large outbreak is a simple one – history. Looking back on how previous pandemics spread throughout our country can give us insight into what we can do to ensure another widespread outbreak doesn’t happen.

Looking Back

During first signs of the 1918 Flu in the United State occurred in March of that year, and was mentioned in the Public Health report that April. Not understanding the impacts that the virus could have, people moved forward as normal, with soldiers continuing to be deployed during World War I. In September, a second wave of flu emerged at Camp Devens, a United States Army training camp just outside of Boston. By the end of September, more than 14,000 flu cases are reported at Camp Devens—equaling about one-quarter of the total camp, resulting in 757 deaths.

The 1918 flu pandemic virus kills an estimated 195,000 Americans during October alone. Despite the spikes in cases, Americans gathered together to celebrate the end of World War I in November – resulting in another resurgence.

It was only then that state began to close schools and businesses, prohibit public gathering, require the use of masks for anyone serving the public, and quarantining those who fell ill. From the winter of 1918 to the spring of 1919 a third wave hit the U.S., killing many before subsiding in the summer of 1919.

Though the epidemic began in early 1918 in the rest of the world, the virus took a long time to reach Alaska. Historians believe it was likely carried by steamships and barges from Seattle and other ports. The first cases appeared in October in Juneau, and as ships and barges made their way around the state in the fall of 1918. The Alaska Office of Vital Statistics reports nearly 3,000 deaths between 1918 and 1919 in the territory. Per capita, more people died in Alaska of the Spanish flu than anywhere else in the world other than Samoa.

What This Teaches Us

Alaska prides itself on being the last frontier – a remote territory unlike the rest of the United States. However, it’s important to remember that Alaska was far more remote in 1918 – with limited modes of transportation into the state and between villages. But that did not stop the flu from having devastating effects. COVID-19 has already reached communities in Alaska and as the State begins to re-open services, there is a possibility that we will experience a second or third wave of cases.

Looking back on the 1918 flu pandemic, we can see how quickly cases can spike when we loosen our social distancing measures.

As our state and communities move to open back up for business, we want to remind everyone the importance of continued social distancing and to continue to follow CDC guidelines to protect yourself:

  • Wash your hands often
  • Avoid close contact
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a face cover when around others
  • Clean and disinfect