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Grand Rapids during the 1918 influenza epidemic

Over 2,500 residents were reported ill, 295 of them dying from the virus
Posted at 5:16 PM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-28 20:49:06-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.  — The are many parallels between the city's response to the 1918 influenza epidemic and how we are currently handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

By the end of 1918, over 2,500 of the city's residents had reportedly fallen ill, with about 295 of them dying from the virus.

FOX 17 spoke with Alex Navarro, Ph.D., a medical historian with the University of Michigan, Tuesday afternoon about how Grand Rapids responded to the epidemic in 1918.

“It's kind of odd to work on that epidemic 100 years ago, hoping that we don't ever see it again and then knowing that the work that we did, is having an impact today," Navarro said.

The historian was a major part of a 2005 project with the department of defense that looked at how certain American cities responded to the virus. From that project, they later worked with Centers for Disease Control to evaluate the effectiveness of these responses.

“Because they were worried in 2005... with the next influenza pandemic, or COVID, would force hospitals to go past their surge capacity until vaccines were created," Navarro said.

They looked at 43 cities as part of the project. Grand Rapids was one of them.

"We looked at these non-pharmaceutical interventions they implemented. We looked at the start date and the stop date relative to their own epidemics. So when their epidemic started, we measured how long their response was to that," Navarro said Tuesday.

They also measured if there was a delay in establishing social distancing measures as part of their response.

"And then we use the fiscal model to calculate whether or not it actually had an impact on these curves. And in fact, it did," Navarro said.

"Following that work, because we had all this great research, that was a quantitative study, we really have lost in that process a lot of these qualitative stories. So that's when we decided to create influenzaarchive.org," Navarro said.

The Influenza Archive site hosts articles on all of the cities the projects looked at.

Speaking of Grand Rapids, Navarro said, “in 1918, the closure orders were not as strict or sweeping as today... Closing places of public congregation using face masks either recommended or mandatory. That was a case in many cities in 1918. And these things did have an effect.”

Navarro says, in terms of infection and death rates, the city of Grand Rapids fared quite well. “Part of that might be to do with the spatial geography of the city at the time, housing, you know, density within within housing structures, but we simply don't know," he said.

The first influenza death on record in the city happened on October 3, 2018. By October 7, there were 75 cases reported in Grand Rapids.

A state-wide closure order issued by the Governor went into effect on October 20. Theaters, churches and billiard halls were ordered closed and all public meetings deemed non-essential were eliminated.

“Their first closure order [Grand Rapids] was only about two and a half weeks long. They issued a second closure order that was only about 10 days long. They didn't close schools until December. We don't know why it did so well. But it managed to do relatively well compared to every other city," Navarro said.

Like today, Navarro says these closure orders were the subject of some criticism.

"The second closure order that came, churches and theaters were left out of that closure order because of that push back. I should also say, though, that there were many citizens in residence in Grand Rapids who were upset that not enough was being done to stem the tide of the epidemic," Navarro said.

Eventually, all of the orders were lifted for the city of Grand Rapids at midnight on Christmas Eve of 1918. ]

Navarro telling FOX 17 Tuesday, “if we take one thing away from 1918, it is that if you remove these closure orders too soon, a second spike of cases is almost inevitable. So we have to do this in a very carefully thought out way.”