The 1918 “flu” pandemic in Richardson Co., numbers start to drop nationally as Falls City looks to Auburn as possible blame for increase in local cases

By Nikki McKim

This article is the seventh in an eight part series about the 1918 “flu” epidemic that killed millions worldwide. 

The year came to a close, and with the start of 1919, people were hopeful that the world would see the end of the epidemic and a return to normal. 

Reports of the flu in local newspapers started to drop as did the list of deaths reported each day. Other news events started to dominate the headlines. 

The Nemaha County Herald reported on January 3, 1919, that “Falls City is up against it for electric light and power. The old plant was broken down completely and the new plant is not ready for use. Semi-Weekly newspapers had to combine two issues in one because of a lack of power to operate the machinery. The city is without lights and will probably be sometime before the situation can be remedied.”

Falls City papers had reported the loss of light and power in mid-December, asking citizens to conserve power. 

A blurb in the January 1, 1919, Falls City Newspapers said, “It is to be hoped that the snowstorm will at least exterminate the flu germ.”

Falls City accused 

Auburn of spreading flu

Falls City and Auburn were at odds as the month started when The Nemaha County Herald reported on January 10, 1919, that Falls City “Blames Auburn for Flu.”

The Falls City Board of Health filed a complaint. The Board of Health in Auburn received a letter from the State Commissioner of Health stating: While we are very pleased to know that you are practically rid of influenza. We do trust that you will keep up your organization to combat this disease because there is no telling what time it may reappear. For your information, we wish to state that Falls City re-

The Falls City Board of Health filed a complaint. The Board of Health in Auburn received a letter from the State Commissioner of Health stating: While we are very pleased to know that you are practically rid of influenza. We do trust that you will keep up your organization to combat this disease because there is no telling what time it may reappear. For your information, we wish to state that Falls City reports that at some basketball game is held at Auburn, there started influenza that is prevailing to an extent at Falls City at this time. This for your information. We also trust that you will not permit dances to be held, as this is the most prolific source of conveying the disease. 

The statement that Falls City people who attended the basketball game carried the flu home with them is a mistake, said the Nemaha County Herald. About all they took home was memories of an inglorious defeat at the hands of the Auburn team and they probably mistook the grouch that followed for the flu. The fact is that when the game was played here, there were very few cases in town and the homes where they existed were under strict quarantine. It is reported that the Falls City authorities have persistently suppressed the truth about the flu in that town through fear of hurting business. They are said not to care how often the church bell tolls so long as the bells in the cash register continue to ring. (Author’s note: I couldn’t find any rebuttal to this article in any Falls City newspapers around this time.)

Things looking up, or are they?

A few weeks later, on January 21, 1919, the Falls City Journal reported that as things start to look like they’re getting better, cases rise again. 

It is suggested that the local chapter of the Red Cross communicate with the state chapter as regards necessary measures toward the organization for preventing this disease. A great deal can be accomplished in the way of saving time, as well as avoiding overworking physicians and nurses by organizing along lines suggested by the state chapter of the Red Cross. 

Increased Prevalence after apparent subsidence: It frequently happens that when the disease is apparently under control in a community, that suddenly there will be an increased number of cases. This, at times, is due to carelessness on the part of the people by not avoiding crowds. It is urged most strongly that people take all precautions to avoid crowds until this disease is entirely stamped out. The sooner it is over, the better for all concerned. 

Outdoor Gatherings: reports received from an American city indicate that these do a great deal of harm. Considering the incubation period at from a few hours to four days, the chart before us indicates that on the day of a large outdoor gathering the number of cases reported was fifty; four days thereafter it has arisen to 175 and, of course, as the epidemic was started, two days thereafter it had reached 525 cases per day. It began to diminish another outdoor gathering held on which date the city was reporting 150 cases per day; immediately, it arose to 250. 

CLOSING: It is suggested places keep on the lid until the disease has passed the point where it is no longer a menace to the public’s health. 

Children in the same family attending school: It is advised that this be not permitted and that the children be kept out of the sick room.

Treatment: Supplementing previous bulletins on the subject, we wish to call attention to the open-air treatment recommended by Surgeon Sweet of the Public Health Service. Where this is impractical open windows and abundant fresh air, at least, can be had. It should be remembered that with such treatment, the patient must be well protected by blankets, hot water bottles, electric pads, etc. Such treatment materially lessens the incidence of pneumonia, the danger to attendance and the dead rise. 

Deaths: Again, we wish to emphasize the danger of not going to bed immediately and resuming of normal activities too soon after an attack. This is the cause of many fatalities. 

Very truly yours, Nebraska State Department of Health, G.F. Fink

Undesirable citizens causing trouble

Falls City Journal reported on January 24, 1919, that ‘flu violators’ would be reported. 

Health Department of Richardson County. Directors in this county have been appointed Deputy Health Commissioners for their school district, and they are in power to act for the county board of health. Ninety percent of the people of this county are true, loyal, and law-abiding citizens. The other ten percent have caused the Board of Health all the trouble. They are undesirable citizens. It will be the duty of the Deputy Health Commissioners to get the names of these violators and report them to this office, and I promise you that they will not escape. One man living near Salem with thirteen in his family had the flu in his home. In fact, the entire family was infected. When the neighbors reported him to this office, he defied the Board of the Health and said, “That he would treat with contempt anyone who would place a card on his home.” I gave him the choice of three things: A visit from the sheriff, the doctor, or the board of health. With a trembling voice, he asked for the doctor. The doctor, true to his calling and working in harmony with the board of health, reported that they had the flu and there was still some temperature. The man knowing this continued to do business and touching the public every day until the community was infected with the infectious disease. So this morning, I received a report from Salem of ten new cases. There will be no choice next time. The sheriff will call at their homes immediately, signed, G.F. Fink, County Health Commissioner. 

Daily influenza report

On January 24, 1919, The Falls City Daily Journal reported a daily influenza report signed by health commissioner for all parts in Richardson County. The latest number is only 106; 12 new cases in Falls City; 20 new cases all told in the county, Saturday. 

False reports of Black Diphtheria

The Falls City News wrote on January 24, 1919, says the report that there is a case of black diphtheria in Falls City is untrue. In the Burgess family, a 14-year-old boy and a baby had diphtheria. Treatment was neglected, but when the doctor came, gave patients an entire family antitoxin and yielded to it. 

Cases declining

It was reported on January 25, 1919, that a hotel in Shubert is said to be the place from which Shubert got its new start in the ‘flu.’ Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom from this disease. Falls City reported but three new cases Thursday, yet even with that small number, there soon could be a hundred, if the quarantine were not made effective. 

Things are looking up.

Mary Pickford, a motion picture actress who was suffering from influenza, was reported to be improving. 

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, the flu ban was completely lifted and newspapers all over the country reported a drop in ‘flu’ cases, but warning of a possible resurgence. 

A third wave would hit the United States in the Spring of 1919, but it would be less severe than the second wave and minor fourth wave would occur in isolated areas, including New York City. 

Next time we’ll conclude this eight-part series remembering some of those who were lost in the pandemic and looking at how they flattened the curve in 1918.

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