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The Spanish flu, or the H1N1 virus, initially appeared in the United States in the spring of 1918. The first wave was considered mild as many of those affected recovered relatively quickly; however, the second and third waves during the fall and late winter proved to be deadly.
The sudden onset of flu symptoms came with the initial wave, but then starting in September, along with the flu, many developed pneumonia. The seemingly stronger virus filled lungs with fluid and many victims died within days or even hours of coming down with the symptoms. Many newspapers had run stories in the summer months that the virus was all but gone.
World War I ended early in November, but many troops had in the previous few months been called to action overseas and with that carried the virus with them, and many experts believe that this is when it developed into a stronger threat.
Most of those who received their information by newspapers during that time were a bit numb to reading about death on an everyday basis as World War I had been raging on since the summer of 1914. Stories of battles across Europe and the destruction and loss of life from the war grabbed the front-page headlines across the states, including those papers in the northern Illinois.
In all, many historians said the Spanish flu infected 500 million people (about a third of the world's population at the time) and between 40 to 50 million people died from the virus, including 675,000 in the United States.
Currently according to the Centers for Disease Control, COVID-19 cases in the United States stand at 85,356 (1,246 deaths), including 2,538 cases in Illinois.
The media coverage over a century ago is much different than what we are seeing with COVID-19. During the Spanish flu, there were no radios and no televisions, with most of the communication between cities and states coming from telegraph or newspapers.
The mention of the Spanish flu or those affected by it are sparse in newspapers in the northern half of Illinois in the first few months of 1918, but that changed in the fall.
In a story that was published in the Sept. 23 edition of the Streator Daily Free Press, the headline reads "Epidemic now under control" and that "only" 100 deaths have resulted at the Great Lakes naval training station. The number of cases that were at 7,000 and limited to just one in 10 men over the last two weeks has dropped to "just" 4,500. Captain W.A. Moffatt says that things are "well in hand" and the station has not been closed to visitors.
In an article in an early October edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, the precautions to take are not that much different than today: "if you get sick, stay in bed and take plenty of liquids; seek medical attention if conditions worsen." Most people recovered after 3-4 days.
However, no one had an idea of how strong the virus had become when it returned.
In an article in the Oct. 26 edition of The DeKalb Daily Chronicle, the headline read "Many people seriously ill" and goes on to say the physicians are being kept busy day and night now and that they are urging people to use common sense during the current conditions. The article goes on to mention that while some who are sick are expected to recover, many more are either in critical condition or are not expected to make it. There is also a mention that the lack of nurses to care for the sick makes things even worse.
The story is also surrounded on the front page with a number of people who died from the virus.
On the bottom of page six of the November 14 edition of Dixon's Evening Telegraph, a headline reads "Death Rate Doubled Here The Past Month."
The story goes on to say "City Clerk Blake Grover, who is registrar of births and deaths in Dixon and Nachusa township, reports 26 deaths and three births from Oct 10-Nov 10. The death rate during the month is twice of that from the previous month and that the Spanish flu is responsible for nearly every death during that time."
As Spain was neutral in World War I, newspapers there were free to report the devastating effects the 1918 pandemic virus was having in that country. Thus, it was generally perceived the pandemic had originated in Spain, and the infection was incorrectly dubbed “Spanish flu.” During the fall of 1918, the front pages of Spanish newspapers were filled with the names of those who had died of the pandemic in the country.
Many historians who have researched the connection between the virus and the reports that found their way into print believe other European countries and also the United States limited or refrained from reporting news of the spreading infection in order to avoid alarming the general population.
It is also thought that by governments giving out correct and full information on the amount of sickness and death the virus was causing, it would show weakness, and that is not something those countries wanted to show with the end of the war in sight.