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1918 flu didn't leave region quietly

The Mitchell Contagion Ward at Memorial Hospital in New London had been in mothballs for a while, but when workmen arrived to get the plumbing and heating working, it was obvious something was up.

Local health officials, acting cautiously, decided to put the building back in operation because they feared Spanish influenza might strike the city. That's the disease history remembers with dread as the 1918 flu.

But this wasn't 1918. It was 1920.

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, we hope we're not in a similar place. With case numbers trending lower and vaccinations starting to make a difference, it's tempting to hope normal times are just around the corner. But to get an idea of what a less-than-ideal transition could be like, it's worth a look at what happened as the last pandemic of this scale receded.

Comparing then and now is tricky at best. In some ways, the two experiences were similar: a shutdown of society, mask-wearing, limited understanding of the disease. Above all, in both cases there was fear, illness and death.

But in 1918, there was no vaccine, and the time frame was different. Spanish flu descended in waves, the first of which was barely noticed. The second wave is the one we remember. In just three months, 500,000 Americans died of flu or pneumonia, a horrific toll we've just reached after a full year of COVID-19.

In southeastern Connecticut, the worst played out between early September and late October, leaving around 600 dead. Then the severity quickly dropped off. That moment is as good as any to compare with where we are today. We can hope what happened next isn't a sign of what awaits in 2021.

* * *

Capt. William M. Sistare Jr. had spent six months on the front lines in France, much of that time under enemy fire. The Bulkeley School graduate from New London had been a chemistry teacher in Chicago when he signed up for duty in World War I. Surviving his tour at the front, he got married and became an artillery instructor at an Army camp in South Carolina.

That's where he was when the war ended on Nov. 11, 1918. Two weeks later, he came home to visit his parents in New London, where the worst of the flu epidemic seemed to be over.

But on Nov. 26, after he had been here just a few days, he fell ill. Three days later he died. It was the day after his 27th birthday.

Despite the war's end and the pandemic's retreat, southeastern Connecticut was not done with grief and death. Almost immediately, a lesser but still deadly third wave of flu rose from the ashes of the second.

Public health officials wasted no time planning for what they feared could be an even worse outbreak.

"This will be painful news to anticipate, but the health authorities will take proper precaution in the event of a recurrence of this dread malady," The Day reported on Dec. 2.

In some places, things were returning to normal. Bulkeley School, a boys' high school, was the first in New London to reopen, after Red Cross nurses examined the student body. Six out of 50 boys showed symptoms and were sent home while the rest resumed classes.

But in Mystic, which had survived the height of the second wave relatively unscathed, the worst was just beginning. Cases of flu increased in November and included five members of one family. Doctors blamed the belated outbreak on the village's celebration of the armistice, an echo of what we would call a "superspreader event" today.

On the morning of Nov. 26, four Mystic residents died, including a trolley motorman whose wife and daughter were also ill at Memorial Hospital. More than 100 cases spanned both sides of the Mystic River, some of them critical.

In mid-December, 14 Connecticut College students fell ill, and the school closed for the Christmas break a week early. Two women died in Noank. Twenty-seven cases were reported in Stonington Borough, and three people died.

By January 1919, the third wave was full-blown, with several hundred people ill in New London. At one point, Lawrence Hospital had seven deaths in 48 hours. No one was sure whether it was the return of Spanish flu or the "grip," ordinary seasonal influenza. But this wasn't ordinary.

"Grip is usually prevalent in weather such as is being experienced at present, but never has it been so serious as it is this winter," The Day noted.

* * *

The third wave eventually subsided, and a year later, health officials were determined to be ready in case the flu returned yet again. Fifteen physicians met in New London on Jan. 22, 1920, and agreed that a building should be commandeered for a possible outbreak. The next day, the mayor and city health officer announced that the Mitchell Contagion Ward would reopen as an overflow unit, just in case.

During the war, Memorial Hospital on Garfield Avenue, which included the Mitchell ward, had been taken over by the Navy, and more than 30 service members died of flu there in late 1918. Left homeless, Memorial merged with its crosstown rival, the Joseph Lawrence Free Public Hospital, to form the institution known today as Lawrence + Memorial. After the war the Navy departed, leaving the building empty.

Plumbing and heating at the contagion ward were up and running in a few days, but by then, New London already had a new outbreak of 30 cases. That number quickly climbed to over 100, enough to justify the foresight of preparing an overflow facility.

But this fourth wave was much milder than the third a year earlier. Officials took a few routine precautions, such as ordering theaters ventilated for 10 minutes between shows. Conditions were well in hand within a week, and no one died.

By early February, a year and a half after its arrival, the once-fearsome Spanish influenza went out with a whimper and never returned.

Health officials remained vigilant, but in the winter of 1920, they would have been surprised to learn that the next major pandemic was exactly 100 years away.

j.ruddy@theday.com

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