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COVID-19 and Opening the Country: Lessons from 1918 Philadelphia

By CHADI NABHAN, MD, MBA, FACP

Everyone has an opinion on whether and when we should open the country. Never in the history of America have we had so many “correct” theories and experts to pontificate on a new pandemic. But somehow, few seem to recall history or attempt to learn from it.

Over a century ago, almost 100 million people out of a world population of 1.8 billion lost their lives to the so-called “Spanish Flu”. At 8.5 million casualties, the death toll from World War I pales in comparison. In the US alone, we lost over 675,000 people in one year to this pandemic. In fact, we lost more people to the 1918 flu than to World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War combined. It was estimated that 5-10% of young adults had died. Nothing has ever come close in devastating the world’s population.

In early 1918, Dr. Miner from Haskell County in Kansas encountered several patients with a severe form of the flu that faded away by March 1918. He was concerned enough to report his observations to the US public health services, who published his concerns but then ignored the issue; there were more pressing problems facing the world, namely World War I. But in Camp Funston, a military complex, soldiers were faced with such cold weather and inadequate clothing that 7,000 of them suffered from the flu and nearly 100 died. Still, these warning signs didn’t seem alarming enough to prevent 1.5 million soldiers from crossing the ocean and going to war in Europe.

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