Roy Cummings, a movie house owner in Oshkosh, knew he would lose big bucks — some $400 to 500 a week — if the northeast Wisconsin city shut down his business and other public gathering places. But he believed it was a wise call.
C.G. Baumann, another Oshkosh movie house owner, appeared less eager to shutter his business, “but stated he would be glad to do so if it was the opinion of the physicians and city officials that such a course was necessary,” Oshkosh’s Daily Northwestern newspaper reported on Oct. 9, 1918.
Nearing the end of the epic war in Europe, later dubbed World War I, Americans faced a deadlier battle on the homefront. The misnamed “Spanish flu” had swept into Wisconsin and other states, and public health experts urged dramatic actions to slow its spread.
On Oct. 10, the city banned all public gatherings, shuttering “moving picture houses,” theaters, churches and more. State Health Officer Dr. Cornelius A. Harper that same day issued a nearly identical order, pausing public life statewide.
But just a few weeks later, Oshkosh was among cities that opened up to celebrate the end of the World War, with joyous gatherings that later turned into deadly viral breeding grounds. Spanish flu ultimately killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 across the United States, including 8,459 Wisconsinites.
More than a century later, Wisconsin is now fighting a new viral villain. Wisconsin is among 45 states and the District of Columbia that have had shelter-in-place orders intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which was detected in at least 6,081 Wisconsin residents, killing 281 as of Monday. But governors in several states have since scaled back restrictions.
Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, issued Wisconsin’s Safer at Home order in late March and has since extended it through May 26. Evers last week announced a program to reopen the economy in phases if certain testing, contact tracing and case reduction criteria are met.
But the prolonged shutdown is drawing the ire of GOP leaders who, citing widespread economic pain, argue for a quicker return to normalcy.
The Republican-controlled Legislature last week asked the state Supreme Court to block the order. And an estimated 1,500 protesters rallied at the Wisconsin State Capitol on Friday demanding an end to the shutdown.
Wisconsin ‘did better than most’
As the political fight unfolds, public health experts and historians say residents could learn from the state’s past, when Wisconsin was the only state to confront the flu pandemic with uniform, statewide shutdown measures.
Influenza blew through Europe in spring 1918, and Americans learned of a mysterious ailment in Army camps during the summer. It arrived on Wisconsin’s radar in late September after two sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station near Chicago got sick in Milwaukee. The virus ravaged the state through the rest of 1918.
Aside from killing thousands of the state’s 2.6 million residents, it sickened 103,000. But Wisconsin’s death rate in the pandemic hovered far below the U.S. average and that of most states.
“The people of Wisconsin took bold measures in 1918, and despite widespread suffering, the state did better than most when the pandemic receded,” said Steven Burg, a professor of history at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, who authored a history of Wisconsin’s response to the 1918 pandemic. “Wisconsin in 1918 provided a clear lesson about what unity and collective sacrifice could achieve for the common good.”
Early measures worked
A 2007 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, said Milwaukee, San Francisco, St. Louis and Kansas City launched the most effective interventions against the 1918 flu, curbing transmission rates by 30% to 50% compared to cities that saw far more deaths.
Cities that introduced measures early on achieved “moderate but significant reductions” in deaths. Larger reductions came from cities that extended their interventions the longest, the study said.
The 1918 pandemic struck at a time when patriotism meant following the directives of public officials, said Richard Pifer, a retired director of reference and public services at the Wisconsin Historical Society.
“Wisconsin controlled the epidemic reasonably well because people did what they were asked to do,” he said.
Still, some Wisconsinites questioned harsh restrictions on public life.
On Christmas Day 1918, The Gazette of Stevens Point shared an opinion that, “The closing proposition to appease ‘public conscience’ is all right as long as they can pass the hardship on some poor fellow who can ill afford to bear the burden.”
Virus hit in pockets and waves
Pockets of 1918 Wisconsin offer real life examples of a warning that public health experts are issuing today: That a virus with no vaccine or cure might hit in waves, meaning that reopening too quickly can generate new hotspots.
Consider small communities in Dodge County, which recorded 111 flu deaths in the pandemic. Fox Lake, a village of roughly 1,000 at the time, lifted its ban on gatherings after the state allowed local governments the power to decide when to reopen. The flu swiftly returned, triggering another shutdown.
“After congratulating ourselves upon our lucky escape … thinking that the danger had passed, this village suddenly developed a number of cases of the ‘flu’ and last week the lid was again clamped down,” the Fox Lake Representative reported on Nov. 21, 1918.
In the nearby village of Randolph, “they are having quite a time, many cases being reported and several deaths resulting,” the Representative added.
On Dec. 2, the Representative reported that the city of Waupun, 10 miles northeast, reinstated its shutdown following reports of 50 new cases and two deaths.
Then there was Oshkosh, which reopened schools and other shuttered institutions on Nov. 4, 1918, although the newspaper reported that Mayor Arthur C. McHenry was warning that “all danger has not yet passed and the people should be warned to exercise every reasonable precaution in safeguarding their health during the next few months.”
McHenry and his constituents quickly forgot the message.
Celebrations — then a surge
On Nov. 11, news spread that the Allies and Germany had signed an armistice — halting fighting in a war that killed more than 116,000 Americans (more than half from disease). The news spurred a series of parades and other celebrations in streets that were empty days before.
“There were hundreds of marchers and nearly 250 automobiles in line,” the Daily Northwestern reported, featuring floats and a cacophony of sounds: drums, honks, buzzers, bells, gunshots.
Oshkosh quickly saw a surge of flu cases — 38 in different homes on one day, the Daily Northwestern reported on Nov. 14 — double the previous day. The flu shutdown was reinstated, not lifting until Nov. 29, according to research by University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
By Dec. 11, the city would report a total of 2,083 cases during the pandemic, according to UW-Oshkosh research.
Neenah residents followed a similar path, filling the streets on Nov. 11 to celebrate peace. A month later, the Daily Northwestern reported that “fully half the population” was touched by the flu.
Echoes of the 1918 pandemic
Infectious disease experts bristle at comparisons between COVID-19 and modern day flu for many reasons, including that scientists have long since developed antiviral drugs and vaccines to fight the flu, and much of the population is now resistant to it. But today’s coronavirus crisis has uncanny parallels with the 1918 flu epidemic, said James Conway, an infectious disease expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health.
“The 1918 (pandemic) does actually have a lot of similarities because there were no vaccines, and your only hope really was one of two things. It was social distancing, and the development of some herd immunity as people contracted the disease and then recovered,” he said.
Malia Jones, an expert in epidemiology who works at the UW-Madison Applied Population Laboratory, agreed.
“Social distancing was the only tool we had during the Spanish flu pandemic,” she said.
Republicans: Stop Safer at Home
Evers and state health officials say Wisconsin’s coronavirus strategy is working. Evers’ plan for reopening the economy includes expanded testing, the ability to quickly trace the contacts of people who test positive and a downward trajectory in disease lasting at least 14 days.
But Republicans have attacked Evers’ extended Safer at Home order as “unprecedented administrative overreach.” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald have sued Evers to reopen the state, questioning why Wisconsinites remain stuck at home as the state “is clearly seeing a decline in COVID infections.” (PolitiFact Wisconsin has since labeled that claim mostly false.)
“Wisconsinites are forced to sit by with no voice in the process,” Vos and Fitzgerald said in a joint statement last week.
Wisconsin Department of Health Services models from March 3-15 projected Wisconsin’s cases would double every 3.4 days without intervention, and Wisconsin would see 22,000 cases of COVID-19 by April 8.
The rate at which coronavirus cases are doubling in Wisconsin has since significantly slowed, though one key metric — the percentage of people tested for COVID-19 who test positive — continues to trend upward, according to the DHS.
Without the continued restrictions, warns the agency and some experts, the risk of future outbreaks persists.
“As we do start to take our foot off the brake a little bit, and let the car at least get back into gear,” Conway said, “We may need people to reenact some social distancing,”
Robert Redfield, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Washington Post that a viral assault in winter “will actually be even more difficult than the one we just went through.”
Speaking to Wisconsin Watch last month, Pifer, the retired Wisconsin Historical Society researcher, said he hoped state leaders would heed lessons from the state’s past.
“The past does not repeat itself. Human beings and human society are too complex for that,” he said. “However, it provides a window into how human society behaves. And we can better understand the future if we understand the past — because it’s that window into the American soul.”
The nonprofit Wisconsin Watch (wisconsinwatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, PBS Wisconsin, other news media and the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by Wisconsin Watch do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates