• Allan Classen

Portland replays 1918 pandemic

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

The Sunday Oregonian of Jan. 12, 1919, had an answer to the pandemic of the time.

The first death in Portland from the Spanish flu pandemic was a discharged soldier, Arthur Zik, in October 1918.

Mayor George L. Baker issued a two-week closing of Benson Polytechnic School after 70 students became ill. Three hundred student soldiers who were part of a U.S. Army training detachment were quarantined. The city banned larger gatherings

. The state of Oregon closed schools, churches and public amusements in the first week of October 1918. Libraries closed.

Still, it was not enough.

Some retailers were thinking of their bottom line. An ad in the Oct. 18, 1918, Oregon Journal states: “The influenza quarantine prevents our advertising all our opening specials as we want to avert big crowds. However, here are a few.”

Mayor Baker, disappointed in the cavalier attitude exhibited by many residents to less stringent measures—such as not allowing public sneezing—ordered the quarantine of all households where residents had contracted the virus.

The Spanish flu triggered social distancing practices, such as ordering theater patrons who sneezed or coughed to leave the premises, according to the Oregon Daily Journal.

He noted that flu sufferers were returning to work or barbershops as soon as they felt able rather than waiting out the required confinement period.

“For this reason, I have concluded that enactment of a law to enforce isolation by means of strict quarantine is necessary, and I will present such a measure to council for enactment on Wednesday,” he told The Oregonian in early December.

The placarding of 3,000 homes began Dec. 13. Flyers with information on how to care for the sick and directions to keep the quarantine were distributed.

But the city relaxed the campaign too soon. The ban on public meetings ended in December although the death total had reached 602. But the spread continued. There were 327 new cases and 11 deaths on Jan. 8, 1919. The Jan. 19, 1919, Oregon Journal reported 1,847 new cases with 113 deaths over the prior six days.

The U.S. Army base in Camp Lewis, Washington, sent 24 nurses to Portland to assist in the crisis that month. The military advised all people to wear masks, and local doctors pleaded especially that masks be worn to worship services.

Above: A public service announcement advised against “worry, fear and fatigue.” Below: A chart in the Oregon Daily Journal tracked the rise and fall in Portland cases of Spanish flu in 1918-19.

The flu was felt around the state. Corvallis closed schools, churches, theaters and public gatherings. Roseburg shuttered poolrooms and public officials were concerned about ice cream stands.

The La Grande newspaper listed the addresses of quarantined households. The quarantine included the city jail, where the “police warn everybody for goodness sake not to break into it.”

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