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Today's coronavirus pandemic has parallels to 1917-18 influenza outbreak

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The way we were

Today's coronavirus pandemic has parallels to 1917-18 influenza outbreak

The current national emergency has drawn comparisons to the worldwide influenza epidemic of 1918, which led to somewhere between 20 million and 50 million deaths worldwide, including some 675,000 Americans. The exact numbers of fatalities in Arizona was unevenly reported, but is estimated at about 6,000 statewide, a disproportionate number of which were in tribal communities.

In Pima County, the number is similarly unknown, but might have been in the hundreds. Though the loss of life was tragic for the community, decisive action by local officials prevented the sort of disaster that was seen in other places.

The so-called "Spanish Influenza" — misnamed because it did not originate in Spain — came from a strain of what was later known as the H1N1 virus, the same one that would return in 2009. Symptoms ranged from something resembling a mild flu to severe chills, fever and body aches, which could leave victims prostrate and helpless. It was not unheard of for someone to feel fine in the morning, fall ill in the afternoon, and be dead by sunset. Scientists had only a theoretical understanding of viruses at this point, so no vaccines were available, and treatment was of limited effectiveness.

The influenza's spread coincided with the First World War, the movement of soldiers and the general disorder wrought by the conflict elevating it to a pandemic. It first emerged in the United States in Army training camps in late 1917. This became a special concern in Southern Arizona because of not only the number of men being mobilized for the war, but also because of the soldiers already deployed along the border in response to unrest in Mexico.

The first local cases of the influenza occurred in April 1918, in Pima County's scattered mining camps like Ajo, Silverbell and Twin Buttes. The Tucson Citizen reported a rumor that this was the work of German agents poisoning the water, but more than likely this was a result of the itinerant nature of mine labor and the generally haphazard living conditions in the camps. Either way, the number of mine workers unable to work due to illness slowed or halted operations, leading to concerns about wartime production. The "three day flu," however, led to few deaths and played out in a matter of weeks. It had little impact in Tucson proper.

Pima County's response was in the hands of Dr. Arthur W. Olcott, who had recently been appointed health officer by the Board of Supervisors. Dr. Olcott had arrived in Tucson in 1896 to take a position as resident physician for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He was later a founding member of the Arizona Medical Association and the Pima County Medical Society. He was credited with overseeing the modernization of Saint Mary's Hospital and helping to organize the nursing school there in 1917.

As county health officer, Olcott had an expansive portfolio. He was responsible for overseeing sanitary conditions in "Tentville," a shanty town of tuberculosis refugees on the northern fringe of Tucson. He saw to care of the county's indigent, and was in charge of the County Hospital. During the springtime flu epidemic, he distributed medical supplies to the mining camps and went to Ajo to personally supervise efforts at the company hospital there.

Pima County had not seen the last of the influenza, however. A more aggressive strain appeared in Boston in September and quickly made its way west, leaving thousands dead in its path. In early October, Dr. Meade Clyne, the city of Tucson's medical officer, warned that, though there were no verifiable cases in Tucson just yet, the pandemic would arrive and the community needed to prepare. Clyne was already working with the City Council on aggressive measures to stop the spread of the disease even as the University of Arizona imposed a preemptive quarantine.

When the first cases were reported in Tucson on October 10, Dr. Clyne's recommendations were put into effect. These included closure of all public places, including churches and schools, and wearing a mask in public. These measures proved controversial and difficult to enforce, but most Tucsonans complied with the orders.

Though Dr. Olcott coordinated his efforts with Dr. Clyne, he had somewhat different responsibilities. The policy of shutting down public places would be of limited effect in the areas outside of Tucson, though he did work with local clergy and the Indian Agency at San Xavier to try to discourage ceremonial gatherings. The county's hospitals proved able to handle the volume of new patients and were not overwhelmed like facilities in other parts of the country, likely because the city's polices were having their desired effect.

The November election proved to be a potential problem. Dr. Olcott recommended that polling be conducted in the open air. Mere days before the election, the Board of Supervisors voted to move the polling stations in Tucson's seven precincts to vacant lots where voting could be conducted outdoors.

With December approaching, the number of local cases began to decline, as did the public's enthusiasm for the city's restrictions. Most of them were lifted by Christmas, by which time the number of new cases in Tucson was down to two or three a day. Though the influenza would remain an issue in Arizona until 1920, the worst of it was over.

While most families in Pima County were touched by the pandemic, there are signs that it could have been much worse. Nearby Bisbee, for instance, with less than half of Tucson's population, had nearly five times as many cases. It seems that an aggressive response by local officials, as well as a long-standing commitment to health care infrastructure, saved uncounted lives and prevented a greater tragedy.

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