OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — More than 100 years ago, Omaha was battling another pandemic. The 1918 Spanish Flu killed millions of people across the world. In Omaha, nearly 1,000 people died. Looking back on how it all unfolded shows lots of similarities to how we’re dealing with COVID-19 today.
“Once it reached Omaha, people started seeing high rates of mortality within days,” said David Bristow of History Nebraska. “Someone could go from feeling just perfectly well to falling ill and being dead within 48 hours.”
According to History Nebraska, the first cases of the Spanish Flu in Omaha were in October of 1918. Symptoms included fever, cough, and dizziness and spread through droplets in the air. With those first cases, public events still took place, but as cases started to double, city leaders closed schools, churches, and areas of entertainment. But travel and those not following the public gathering rules caused the virus to spread significantly, which is why social distancing is such a big focus today.
“The arrival of the flu coincided with... the city’s annual weeklong Aksarben Festival which involved parades, coordination’s, and an outdoor carnival. The thought was outdoor events were okay, so the Aksarben event continued and flu cases increased greatly,” said Bristow.
“But what (local leaders) didn’t realize is that when you close the schools, the kids were going to the theaters, the skating rinks, and to other amusements,” said Mary Lyons-Carmona with the UNO History Department.
The Omaha health commissioner told people to stay home and advised them to keep their car windows down when driving to allow fresh air in.
“If you open the windows or if people are treated outside in tents which they are doing actually today, it’s better, fresh air, sunshine can help patients,” said Lyons-Carmona.
With all those people that died from the virus, historians recommend that when society does open back up, it’s a slow process because 1918 serves as a lesson.
“Whenever they eased up in 1918, the next week, hospitalizations would shoot up, so you don’t want that to happen,” said Lyons-Carmona.