By Bruce Haulman and Mike Sudduth
The COVID-19 novel coronavirus pandemic, which the Seattle area finds itself at the U.S. epicenter of, is not the first time Vashon-Maury Island has confronted a pandemic and it will probably not be the last, as global climate change impacts all of the world’s natural systems.
The first pandemic to hit Vashon was the series of disease regimes that Europeans brought to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1700s that devastated Native Peoples into the latter decades of the 1800s. Over that period, many estimates suggest that over 90% of Native Peoples died as a result of the European introduced diseases. Although not generally recognized as such, these diseases were truly a pandemic for Native People.
After the island was settled by Euro-Americans in the 1870s, the first significant pandemic was the 1918 Spanish Flu. Other virus outbreaks with less impact on the island were the 1957 Asian Flu, the 1968 Hong Kong Flu, the 2002 SARS virus, the 2009 Swine Flu, the 2012 MERS virus, and now, the 2020 COVID-19 virus.
The 1918 Spanish Flu, beginning in the spring of 1918 and intensifying in a second wave in the fall, did not decline significantly until the spring of 1919. During that time, between 1,400 and 1,600 people died in the Seattle area. The statistics are not clear because reporting was not well developed and those dying from related effects like pneumonia were not always classified as Spanish Flu deaths. In addition, under-counting resulted when those getting sick were counseled to stay at home so hospitals could care for those who were gravely ill. Public health was a newly emerging field and on Vashon, while the data is not entirely clear, over 30 islanders died as a result of the pandemic.
Islanders canceled events, closed schools, prohibited gatherings and churches suspended services. What we today call “social distancing” was seen as the most effective tool to fight the pandemic, as suggested by Nancy Bristow, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, in her book “American Pandemic” (2012). John Barry’s “The Great Influenza” (2009) saw the Spanish Flu as the introduction of modern science into public health decisions. What we are seeing with the COVID-19 pandemic is the repudiation of a scientific approach by a government led by those more concerned with their public image than the health of the nation.
The Spanish Flu, unlike the COVID-19, infected young people in disproportionate numbers. Nearly half of those who died from it were between the ages of 20 and 40. On Vashon, in October and November of 1918, 16-year-old Marjorie Van Olinda died after a three-day illness, and Mr. and Mrs. Bussanich died two days later, leaving behind their three-year-old daughter. The fatality rate of the Spanish Flu was between eight and 10%, while at this point, the COVID-19 fatality rate seems to be about 3 to 4%, although realistically we are too early in the COVID-19 pandemic to really know.
In September 1918, Golgatha Lutheran Free Church suspended services for eight weeks because of the epidemic. All Vashon schools were closed for five weeks beginning in October and did not resume until November 18, 1918. Teachers were cautioned to watch for children with severe colds.
The Vashon Island Record published the U.S. Health Service Official Health Bulletin on Influenza in the October 17, 1918 edition, which provided a comprehensive review of symptoms, advice on what to do if you contracted the flu and recommendations on how to avoid catching the flu. This was a very scientific and rational public service piece for the times.
On December 5, 1918, the U.S. Health Service issued a warning about pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases. They recognized that the secondary effect of the Spanish Flu could be more deadly than the illness itself. U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue announced that “The present epidemic has taught by bitter experience how readily a 1condition beginning as a slight cold may go on to pneumonia and death.”
“Although the worst of the epidemic is over, there will continue to be a large number of scattered cases, many of them mild and unrecognized, which will be danger spots to be guarded against,” he said.
As the second wave of the pandemic worsened in the fall of 1918, many summer residents returned to their vacation homes to escape the ravages of the disease in the city. The Oct. 31 Vashon Island Record remarked that “Many summer residents have returned to their cottages due to closing of the city schools on account of the epidemic of influenza.”
In November, Dockton banned “gatherings of any kind” until the number of flu cases started to decline. In December, Vashon schools again closed and did not open until mid-January. The January 2, 1919 Record included an opinion piece, which stated that “This influenza epidemic has forced a great many people to spend their evenings at home.” On January 9, the Record noted that in Dockton, “There are still a number of flu cases here, but all are reported to be out of danger.” By March, the epidemic was in decline, although the Mark Bridges family of Clam Cove, Native Americans and decedents of Mary and Matthew Bridges, were still fighting severe cases of pneumonia.
What we can learn from the Spanish Flu pandemic on Vashon over one hundred years ago is that in the current COVID-19 pandemic the island will survive, a number of us will get sick and some of us may die. Yet we can make a difference on how severe and how widespread the impact will be by learning from the past. The 1918 recommendations of the surgeon general are the same recommendations we are hearing from our local and state leaders, and from medical experts, if not from our national leaders.
The main difference between the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is that in 1918, the messages were clear and largely trusted by the public. Today, the messages are much the same as then on how to limit the spread of the disease, but now the messages are often muzzled or not clear, and the level of trust in the openness and veracity of our nation’s leaders is, at best, suspect.
Bruce Haulman and Mike Sudduth are island historians.