Historian: Omaha handling COVID-19 pandemic better than 1918 flu epidemic

Published: Feb. 11, 2021 at 11:51 PM CST
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - In the United States, 471,000 have died from the coronavirus. Go back about 100 years, and records show the influenza epidemic killed 650,000 Americans.

The COVID-19 death toll in Douglas County grew Thursday to 634. Compare that to the flu epidemic of 1918 and twice as many died in Omaha — nearly 1,200, one of the highest death rates in the country.

6 News examined that six-month stretch beginning in the fall of 1918, and the striking similarities compared to today’s pandemic.

“The population however was a third of the size it is today,” said Alex Navarro, a historian at the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine. His team researched how several cities handled the pandemic in 1918 and what we can learn from it today.

Back then, Omaha leaders put mask orders in place, encouraged social distancing, and limited big gatherings.

Sound familiar?

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

Some businesses — like theatres and movie houses and bowling alleys — were ordered closed in 1918.

“There were lots of examples of push back and a lot of people who didn’t comply with mask orders or those who continued to have gatherings,” historian Alex Navarro said.

America was at war, so that coverage dominated the front page 100 years ago. But as parents died of influenza at alarming rates — leaving churches to care for their children — mixed messages came from the same Omaha Health Commissioner who had taken drastic steps to stop the spread early in the epidemic. He believed the personal responsibility of Omahans, not closure orders, would make the difference and downplayed the epidemic.

Businesses reopened after a month layoff. Parades resumed ignoring social distancing guidelines.

“Omaha had a second set of cases in that fall wave. It was just as bad as the initial spike. People didn’t take it seriously,” Navarro said. “Omaha is an example that when you remove the rather strict public health measures — and no one likes those — now it’s up to you to do the right thing. For a lot of people, you’re giving them mixed messages: ‘It’s serious, but not that serious. Because if it was serious, they’d keep the orders in place.’ ”

Navarro said Omaha fared worse during the influenza epidemic of 1918 than most other cities.

“It seems Omaha didn’t have as high of levels of compliance as other cities,” he said.

But when it comes to learning from history, there’s this: Researchers found most communities handled the first wave of COVID — and the isolation — better than 100 years ago. Remember: The flu epidemic in Omaha ended in February, six months after the first cases.

“We did a better job of that in the Spring of 2020 compared to the Fall of 1918,” Navarro said. “I’m glad I’m a historian and not a public health policymaker. It’s really difficult to get a high level of compliance for a long time — closures and masks. Humans are social creatures, and we want to spend time with friends and family and coworkers. We can interrupt these for a short time, if the risks are high. But it’s harder to maintain that for a few months.”

During the height of the flu epidemic in Omaha, people were fined if they left their home under quarantine. In fact, the health department put a poster on their front door to let neighbors knew they were ill.

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