The Epidemic Arrives
This influenza was highly contagious and a sudden killer, producing high fever, nausea, aches, and sometimes diarrhea. Weakened by influenza, many people caught severe pneumonia that destroyed the lungs, filling them with a frothy, bloody fluid; some patients turned blue from lack of oxygen. The disease struck hardest at people between twenty and forty years old, whereas ordinary flu tended to be most dangerous to young children and the elderly. Overall, roughly half of influenza victims were young and middle-aged adults, which meant that the disease left many orphans.
By 1919, when the epidemic ended, the Virginia State Board of Health reported that in just thirteen months 326,195 people in Virginia had caught the disease and, based on death certificates, 15,679 of those had died. The actual total was higher because some people in rural, isolated areas had no access to physicians and so no death certificates were filed.
Caring for the Sick
Pharmacists filled doctors' prescriptions and also sold patent medicines that were advertised as preventing or treating the flu. Sometimes their supplies ran out entirely and they had trouble getting what they needed. Also they had trouble keeping up with doctors' demands for medicines. (At the time, pharmacists compounded all medicines themselves from ingredients they kept in stock.) The majority of these treatments, however, were ineffective.
Undertakers were overwhelmed during the worst months of the epidemic. There was a shortage of coffins, and it was hard to bury the dead fast enough. In Philadelphia, one of the worst-hit cities, authorities were at times forced to bury bodies in mass graves, but this never happened in Virginia. In at least one case, in Tidewater, an undertaker donated land for burying the dead.
Government Response in Virginia
Taking their lead from the U.S. Public Health Service, federal authorities at first downplayed the importance of the deadly new influenza. Various announcements led people to think that this influenza was normal and could be handled by the usual treatments. Virginia officials at first followed suit. But, along with other state and local governments, they soon realized that they were dealing with something much worse.
The Board of Health did not have the power to impose health measures; it could only make recommendations to local governments and distribute public health information about prevention. But during the worst period of the epidemic—October–November 1918—the board organized a relief train with supplies, doctors, and nurses to help the especially hard-hit communities of Southwest Virginia.
President Woodrow Wilson made no official statements about the epidemic, thinking that if Americans were aware of the extent of the crisis their morale would suffer during wartime. There is no record of Governor Davis making any public statements about the crisis, either.
Richmond and Charlottesville
Richmond was the largest city in the state, with a population of approximately 170,000. Charlottesville and Albemarle County, with a combined population of 36,000 (11,000 for the city and 26,000 for the county), illustrate the experience of the influenza pandemic in small cities and rural areas.
By the end of September, hundreds of cases of influenza had appeared in Richmond, with the number growing very fast. At this point, the city health officer and the Virginia Health Commissioner did not take steps to limit public gatherings or quarantine patients, and the public schools remained open. By the end of the first week of October, however, there were an estimated 10,000 cases in Richmond and authorities predicted 1,500 deaths within the coming six weeks. In response, Richmond health authorities prohibited gatherings at churches, theaters, movie houses, and other places where large numbers of people came together; soon schools were closed. Also, the State Fair was cancelled.
By late October, the worst of the crisis seemed to have passed, and in early November restrictions on social gatherings ended and schools reopened, although against the advice of local doctors. Perhaps as a result, another surge of cases occurred early in December. By the end of the year 20,841 cases of influenza had been reported in Richmond, and by early February 1919 1,078 of those patients had died. Richmond's death rate—attributable to many factors, including the government's response—was lower than that of other cities on the East Coast but was higher than the average for southern and Midwestern cities.
The situation in Charlottesville and Albemarle County was similar in some ways. The first influenza death reported in the county was on September 30, 1918, and the disease hit hard and fast in early October. On October 4, the city council prohibited all large public gatherings, and schools soon closed. Overall, an estimated 2,100 residents caught influenza, and, based on death certificates, at least 227 died in the city and county combined. In addition, in remote rural areas, especially in the mountains in the western part of the county, others died without a doctor's care and were buried at home.
The city council issued several calls for volunteer nurses to work with the city's pubic health nurse to care for patients, as well as calls for volunteers to help with providing food for the sick who did not have assistance. The home economics teacher at the Colored Graded School (later the Jefferson School), and her volunteers, made soup with donated ingredients.
Forgetting and Remembering
September 13, 1918 - The first influenza case in Virginia appears at Camp Lee, near Petersburg. It is the beginning of a pandemic.
October 4, 1918 - The State Board of Health formally requests the cooperation of the Virginia Anti-Tuberculosis Association in fighting the flu pandemic.
October 5, 1918 - By this day there are an estimated 10,000 cases of influenza in Richmond. Authorities predict 1,500 deaths within six weeks.
Late October 1918 - The worst of the influenza pandemic in Virginia has passed, and in the coming weeks schools reopen and restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.
Early February 1919 - Of 20,841 reported cases of influenza in Richmond, 1,078 patients have died.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Caelleigh, A. S. The Influenza Pandemic in Virginia (1918–1919). (2020, May 22). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Virginia_The_Influenza_Pandemic_in_1918-1919.
- MLA Citation:
Caelleigh, Addeane S. "The Influenza Pandemic in Virginia (1918–1919)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 22 May. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: February 22, 2019 | Last modified: May 22, 2020