Traverse City Record-Eagle

Record-Eagle 150th Anniversary

May 4, 2009

When Spanish flu came to TC

Health officials were criticized for response to outbreak

A lot has changed in Traverse City over the last 91 years, but not the threat of worldwide influenza pandemics.

From 1918-1920, Spanish influenza infected 1 billion people and killed an estimated 25 million to 100 million people worldwide, or 2.5 to 5 percent of the human population.

World War I, in comparison, struck down 20 million. Estimates place the flu death toll in the U.S. at over 675,000 with more than 22 million sickened.

Spanish influenza showed up in Traverse City in 1918 when 14-year-old Smith Bright died in mid-October. By year's end, influenza and pneumonia had killed 34 local residents -- 31 in December alone.

Until then, most state deaths had been in southern Michigan. In October 1918, the state reported 4,332 deaths from flu or pneumonia -- a phenomenal jump from 243 pneumonia deaths in October 1917.

Dr. R.M. Olin, the state's health director, issued orders to health officers across the state to quarantine households and close theaters, churches and non-essential meetings as precautionary measures wherever the flu hit, including Traverse City.

Flu cases cropped up in Cedar, Maple City, Kingsley and Fife Lake. In early December, Olin ordered the local Red Cross to canvass Traverse City households to determine why. The survey indicated three local deaths, 294 current cases and 478 cases of flu in which the victims recovered.

Local residents also weren't taking "proper precautions," canvassers reported. Employees at Traverse City State Hospital -- quarantined because of 30 flu cases -- wore required anti-flu masks at work but repeatedly violated quarantine by slipping them off in the evening to go to public theaters, dance halls and billiard parlors. Local families of flu victims also often allowed visitors from outside into their homes, too.

By mid-December, Dr. E.L. Thirlby authorized city police to send "coughers" home, but the epidemic overwhelmed the city's tiny, inadequate hospital by Christmas. A small emergency hospital was set up in a wing of the Traverse City State Hospital on Dec. 27. A panic appeared to be brewing.

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