COVID-19 reveals lessons learned and lost from deadly 1918 flu pandemic in central Va.

COVID-19 reveals lessons learned and lost from deadly 1918 flu pandemic in central Va.

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Another deadly pandemic reached central Virginia 102 years ago this fall. The virus that became known as the “Spanish flu” forced schools and churches to close, and overwhelmed Charlottesville’s largest hospital in 1918. It shares remarkable similarities and differences to the coronavirus pandemic.

Charlottesville’s Daily Progress newspaper first reported a local death from the influenza pandemic on September 30, 1918. The virus had claimed a student at Fork Union Military Academy. It spread swiftly, killing hundreds of people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County by the winter.

Among the dead from Albemarle County was Charles Wayland. He was in his freshman year at Virginia Polytechnic Institute when he died at the end of October.

"He was a very healthy young 18, 19-year-old student at Tech who was doing fine, didn’t have a care in the world,” Charles Wayland’s nephew, David Wayland, said.

David discovered what happened to his uncle in a series of letters written by Charles’s mother, dispatched from Blacksburg.

"I never heard them talk about it at all. It had to be very painful to talk about,” David said about his family.

The letters describe 10 anxiety-filled days of a mother caring for her ailing son in the campus infirmary.

"Charles makes my heart ache because I know he has been so lonesome and he doesn’t want me to leave him,” wrote Charles’s mother.

A front page notice in the November 1, 1918 Daily Progress reported the news home: “Charles A. Wayland is flu victim”. It describes him as a “young man of much promise”.

"It’s really sad. It came so fast on him and I guess so others too it seems like,” David said.

Wayland’s is one of dozens of death notices that became a daily part of the newspaper’s publication as the influenza pandemic spread through central Virginia in the fall of 1918. Sixteen-year-old “School girl victim of Spanish influenza”, announced the headline on October 3 with the death of Rebecca Edwards. John Hamilton Rhodes was a hotel clerk, “whose death was hastened by an attack of Spanish influenza.” The newspaper announced the death of Judson McManaway October 11, remembering him as a, “splendid young man,” whose brother was, “quite sick with the same insidious malady.”

"Within a week to 10 days, the death certificates just pick up and pick up and pick up. These were children, teenagers, adults and others all dying,” University of Virginia School of Medicine researcher Addeane Caelleigh said.

Caelleigh spent years studying the impacts of the 1918 pandemic on Charlottesville and Albemarle County. Days after the first reported death, Charlottesville’s mayor ordered schools, churches, and theaters shut down. Within a week, the paper published a plea from the district nurse saying she was overrun and in need of volunteers to care for whole families stricken with the virus.

"The federal government had no resources to help anybody. The state had no resources either, except to give advice. Therefore, the whole weight of the pandemic fell on local officials and the local community,” Caelleigh said.

The 200-bed University of Virginia hospital stopped taking in patients. Its now tattered and taped-together register offers a record of patients admitted for influenza-pneumonia. Some recovered. Many did not survive.

"Between the number of doctors assigned to the university hospital and the number of nurses there, it made a great deal of difference in local health,” Caelleigh said.

He estimates the flu killed at least 400 people in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

Yet, the pandemic never blazed across the newspaper banner. That’s because the nation was at war. Central Virginia families were sending their sons to the frontlines of World War I. Names of men wounded or dead in battle stole headlines from the fight against the deadly flu at home.

"The influenza pandemic faded from cultural memory before very many years,” Caelleigh said.

Retired Charlottesville pediatrician and volunteer at the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society Dr. Michael Dickens is working to connect the past century’s pandemic to the one we’re fighting with masks and social distancing today.

"I think the war really brought everybody together, as opposed to now where it’s clear we’re not all together in terms of how we’re all reacting,” Dickens said. “The flow of information was slow in getting out, and there wasn’t this constant churning of facts and rumors and counter-rumors like we see now.”

Dickens is able to draw comparisons between the flu and COVID-19 pandemics: In both, volunteers came together to make masks. Lockdowns and quarantines also slowed the spread.

"There was no real treatment for any of these highly-infectious diseases. They were very used to the idea of being quarantined,” Dickens said.

Dickens says the flu disproportionately affected Charlottesville’s Black population, just like with COVID-19.

"When they got sick, the deck was already stacked against them because of poverty and malnutrition,” Dickens said.

Dickens worries medical advancements, treatments, and vaccines make it easy for people to forget pandemics of the past. He believes progress comes by following the science.

"They’re following the basic biology of the virus, which doesn’t change from generation and century to century. It’s still the virus versus us and our immune system,” Dickens said. “I don’t think we really learned the lessons.”

The 1918 influenza pandemic was shorter and deadlier than COVID-19. It hit hardest over a 6-month period. The last patient was admitted to UVA hospital in early February 1919. By Caelleigh’s estimate, it claimed 1 out of every 100 people living in Charlottesville and Albemarle County.

To read more of Caelleigh’s research into the impacts of the influenza pandemic on Virginia, click here.

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