Historians draw parallels between Spanish flu and coronavirus outbreaks in Summit County
DILLON — The Spanish flu pandemic, which first emerged in Summit County 102 years ago, has striking similarities to how the new coronavirus pandemic is playing out more than a century later.
Phyl Rubenstein, a historic tour guide at the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance, has researched the subject and written an article comparing the two pandemics. Rubenstein said that back in 1918, when the Spanish flu first emerged in Breckenridge, and in 1920, when the town was hit hardest, similar advice was given: Wash your hands, stay away from people and “quarantine” if you have symptoms.
“They talked about washing your hands and staying away from other people extensively,” Rubenstein said, referring to articles she read from the Summit County Journal at that time as well as other published literature.
While the methods of containment back then were on par with modern recommendations, treatments for those who were sick were less akin to modern practices. Rubenstein laughed as she explained that it was recommended that sick individuals drink hot lemonade and put hot mustard wraps on their feet. A major similarity, however, is that a lot of people who died from the Spanish flu developed pneumonia like doctors are now seeing with COVID-19.
Rubenstein wrote that the Spanish flu arrived in Breckenridge in early October 1918 after emerging in Europe in March of that year. Similar to today, businesses shut down and health officials banned all gatherings and “all forms of entertainment” to control the spread of the virus.
Schools remained open, but any student showing symptoms of the virus was sent home immediately. On Oct. 19, 1918, the State Board of Health ordered all gatherings to cease and said police would strictly enforce the order. Two weeks later, the town believed the brunt of the epidemic was over, but by Nov. 2, there were 60 reported cases. By mid-November, half the town was affected.
Rubenstein said that while there were not tests to determine if it was in fact Spanish flu with which a person was infected, cases were reported based on symptoms. The town was divided into four with a “captain” responsible for reporting cases and providing food, fuel and medical attention to affected families in their quadrant.
Rubenstein wrote that in January 1919, the outbreak seemed to be on the decline in Breckenridge but was raging through Dillon. People from Dillon who tried to enter Breckenridge were either sent back home or quarantined on arrival.
“If they tried to come from Dillon, they would be sent to the pest,” Rubenstein said. “The pest was a contagious disease hospital in Breckenridge that they sent people to.”
Rubenstein said that what she found most concerning was how quickly Breckenridge determined the outbreak was essentially over and how the flu struck again in 1920 following the Denver Stock Show. As people across the state, including Summit County residents, traveled to Denver to see the Stock Show, there still were thousands of cases of flu in Denver that were kept quiet. Those who visited the show brought the virus back to their communities, and by Jan. 31, 1920, 40 new cases were reported in Breckenridge. This time, schools closed along with businesses, gatherings were banned, quarantines were enforced and teachers acted as nurses as the case count reached 80 in February.
Because of this reemergence in history, Rubenstein cautions against reopening towns too quickly.
“They reopened much too quickly,” Rubenstein said. “Like now, the rules were different in different communities. Opening too soon is just going to leave us open for more outbreaks.”
When the first outbreak occurred in 1918, Rubenstein said Gunnison escaped the disease for a time because it completely quarantined the town and did not allow anyone in. Because of this strict quarantine, they had no cases. However, after the Denver Stock Show, a Gunnison resident who attended the show brought the virus to the town, and Gunnison suffered an outbreak.
Since Summit County comprised mining towns when the Spanish flu pandemic made its rounds, the virus arrived later in Summit County and struck particularly hard years after its emergence. Rubenstein pointed out that today, Colorado mountain resort communities were some of the first to be affected due to their worldwide tourism economies, making the timing of the arrival of the pandemic disease in 1918 very different than what we are seeing in 2020.
“During the Spanish flu, Breckenridge was isolated,” said June Walters, historic tour guide for the Breckenridge Heritage Alliance. “People from other mining communities were just as isolated. It wasn’t until people came to a metro area that the disease came home with them. The Spanish flu took a much longer time to get to Breckenridge than it did the rest of the world.”
Walters, who leads a Breckenridge Valley Brook Cemetery tour, said there weren’t a lot of people buried in Valley Brook during the Spanish flu epidemic but that some graves from that time period show “how quickly people were buried,” with some tombstones not even including a person’s name. She said that one tombstone reads, “O’Brian’s father in law.”
Walters said that while there were other epidemics that occurred that largely targeted children, such as diphtheria, the Spanish flu did not target a specific age group.
“I think we are better off because we have more scientific knowledge,” Rubenstein said about the latest pandemic. “And are we better off or worse off because we’re in the information age? I think both. There’s a lot of information that gets spread that may or may not be coming from authorities.”
Despite the modernization and changes that have occurred in Summit County since 1918, Rubenstein said we have a lesson to learn today from the impact of the pandemic then.
“The closing of businesses and distancing of people seem to be the most effective means of bringing this crisis to an end,” Rubenstein wrote in her article. “Reopening businesses too quickly could once again cause a recurrence when we believe we are ‘past the apex.’
“Two things remain resolutely unchanged after all these years: the caring of this rugged frontier town for its people and the compassion those citizens show each other.”
Flip through the Summit County Journal archives at ColoradoHistoricNewspapers.org.
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