'History does not repeat, but it echoes': Kentucky historian compares 1918 flu, COVID-19 pandemics

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Posted at 7:30 PM, Sep 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-23 19:32:28-04

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — More Americans have now died from COVID-19 than those killed during the influenza pandemic of 1918. That year, one in three Americans would be infected by the virus before the outbreak was over, and Kentucky was no exception to the flu’s toll.

World War I was also ending, but people were masking up for a new battle as the flu spread to the United States.

“History does not repeat, but it echoes,” said Dr. Mandy Higgins, a historian who works at the Kentucky Historical Society in Frankfort.

We asked her what life was like when the flu swept through cities across the Commonwealth. She says while there were some differences, we also might notice some familiar aspects to living through a pandemic.

“There's no cell phone, no Twitter,” she told us. “People got their news from the newspaper, from their neighbors. But there are some similarities of the people who came before us.”

According to the Influenza Archive, Louisville was hit hard, after the city’s first cases were identified in September 1918, including at the Camp Zachary Taylor military installation.

The situation in Eastern Kentucky was also dire. A newspaper from November 1918 reads, “Dying and dead lay side by side. Whole families have flu. Send help or we perish.”

“Places like Bell County, Harlan, were reporting in the newspaper they had 50 or 60 cases at a time,” Higgins explained.

Both in Kentucky and across the country, officials encouraged people to wear masks and keep space from one another, as part of their patriotic duty.

In Lexington, sick patients filled the gym at the University of Kentucky. Many students were sent home, and Fayette County shut down picture theaters and opera houses.

Even the Thanksgiving football game was canceled that year, ending the Wildcats’ season early.

“For the first time in years the Wildcats can eat their turkey in peace, with no thoughts of a coming gridiron struggle,” the Kentucky Kernel reported.

Fayette County officials also took a different approach to containing the virus than we see today.

“The county public health department puts placards on homes of folks who have confirmed to have the virus for quarantine,” Higgins said. “Their addresses are published in the newspaper, and their names.”

With no vaccine available, the pandemic ended in 1919. 675,000 Americans died, including 14,000 Kentuckians.

“It's really gut-wrenching to read that because we know what that feels like,” said Higgins. “We're living it.”