Douglas County has endured the tragedy of a pandemic multiple times since its beginning in 1854. Records provide some idea of how the influenza pandemics of 1889, 1899, 1957, 1968, and the H1N1 influenza pandemic of 1997 affected our community. The catastrophic pandemic of 1918 became the single greatest natural catastrophe since the Black Death in the 1300s.
Of course, these records do not tell the personal stories of those who lived and died during these terrible times in our County’s history. I urge you to share your stories of the current pandemic by using the links below, calling our office to schedule an interview, or writing it down and mailing it in. Our stories are critically important history. I’ll start by sharing a couple of personal stories.
In February of 1957, the H2N2 virus emerged in China. It claimed 116,000 lives in the United States. One of those lives was my older brother, just a toddler. No statistics on the number of deaths in Omaha in November of 1957 begin to describe the pain. This year, our family has been looking forward to two weddings! My nephew and his fiancée made the prudent decision to move their June 2020 wedding to June 2021. I hope and pray my son’s wedding in September will be able to go forward as planned. We have all been affected by this pandemic. Together we can document stories, photos, and statistics for future generations to have a better idea of what it was like. Statistics are not enough.
Omaha in 1918 had a population of around 180,000. In September of 1918, the Omaha Daily Bee began to publish some articles about an influenza outbreak. The big news story for all newspapers was the end of World War I. The outbreak of illness that was primarily concentrated on the military did not make major headlines. This biological invasion of the world was known by various names; in the U.S., the Spanish flu, Japan – “wrestlers fever”, England – “Flanders grippe”, Germany – “Blitz Katarr”.
The first wave began in the spring and summer of 1918 and was present in the U.S. in military Midwestern outposts and spread to numerous states. Europe was affected during the same period. For the most part, the civilian population was spared. Once the virus mutated and re-emerged in the U.S. in September it was a different story. Between late August and early January, 22 million lives were lost worldwide. The U.S. lost 600,000 people, both young and old. The hardest-hit age group was 20-40 years old.
Just as now, the virus spread across all demographics. Political leaders including the Kings of Spain and Great Britain, The Emperor of Germany and President Wilson suffered from the virus.
In the U.S., health departments closed theaters, churches and places of public assembly for weeks. While at the same time, cities conducted rallies and parades for Liberty Bonds, aiding the spread. Medical professionals were short-handed. At Fort Omaha, buildings were converted into makeshift hospitals to accommodate soldiers stationed there and those coming through Omaha by train. A variety of measures were attempted to treat and prevent the spread including injections of blood plasma from survivors, concoctions of graham crackers, egg punch and sanitizing drinking fountains with blowtorches. Gauze masks were handed out, telephones were sanitized with alcohol. People were required by law to carry a handkerchief. Anti-spitting ordinances were in effect along with curfews. Morgues were over-flowing, especially on the East coast.
The Aksarben festival, a week’s worth of activities, went on as scheduled. The first Omaha death attributed to the flu was October 3rd. The 35-year-old pastor of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Rev. Siefke S. deFreeze lost his life. Many died within 48 hours of contracting the virus.
On October 3rd, Omaha’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Ernest T. Manning, issued the following precautions:
- Avoid crowded streetcars, rooms, etc.
- Gargle the throat and spray the nasal tract with a normal salt solution
- Keep the bowels free.
- Keep a state of high individual resistance by hygienic living
- Some physicians recommend inoculations with the grippe vaccine
On October 4th schools, churches, theaters, dances lodge and labor meetings and Red Cross workshops were closed. Streetcars were required to leave their windows open. Quarantine was issued at Fort Omaha. There were no reported cases at the Fort on October 4th by the end of the day on the 5th, there were 200. The Fort hospital added curtains between the beds to prevent spread. Medical personnel was required to wear white caps, gowns and gauze face masks.
Dr. Manning assured people that it was fine to attend all outdoor events. The Red Cross asked the public to sew 1,000 face masks. The Visiting Nurses Association made an urgent plea for all women, regardless of medical training, to help assist with the number of flu patients.
By October 7th, Omaha had over 2,000 cases of influenza reported. VNA made nearly 12,000 visits to sick Douglas County residents. The spreading continued. Nearly 1,200 workers from packing plants had the virus. Without a clear understanding of how the virus was spread and no effective treatment, efforts to contain the disease were seriously crippled. By mid-month City officials made a public announcement that restrictions could be lifted within a week. Instead by October 17th, there were 9,500 cases in Nebraska with 5,000 of them in Omaha. Finally, by October 21, the state issued closures of schools, theaters, movies, and public gatherings both indoors and outdoors. It even canceled Nebraska versus Notre Dame football game!
Omaha defined public gatherings as 12 or more people. Attendance at funerals was limited to relatives and all businesses had to close by 4:30. The county and federal courthouses were shut down. Complaints poured into the health department reporting people who were not in compliance with the restrictions.
There was a discussion of whether whiskey aided in the recovery of the disease. Despite Nebraska’s prohibition law, 500 gallons of whiskey were turned in at hospitals to treat patients.
Dr. Manning formed a joint research committee with UNMC and Creighton University.
On Friday, November 1st the restrictions in Omaha were lifted. Douglas County lost 442 residents to the pandemic. Some of the changes affecting residents after the pandemic were; dropping the practice of drinking out of a common communion glass, theaters were fumigated and guests were encouraged to occupy every other row in the theater, vaudeville acts were forbidden to make fun of the flu, streetcar companies were encouraged to not overcrowd the streetcars.
Fort Omaha lifted its month-long quarantine on November 2, recording 47 deaths. Some cases continued into November. On December 20 the State Board of Health declared influenza a quarantinable disease. Every household containing one or more flu patients was placed under strict quarantine and no member of the family was allowed to leave or enter the house. In Omaha, blue quarantine cards were printed and tacked on those homes that contained flu patients. Approximately 1,000 houses were ”closed”. The penalty for violation ranged from $15 to $100 and physicians were required to report all new cases. The restriction applied until four days after the patient’s fever subsided. Dr. Manning was not in favor of the state’s guidelines. Omaha’s Chamber of Commerce made a formal protest to Nebraska’s State Board of Health. They contended that if the order were allowed to continue, businesses would become seriously demoralized, and firms would go bankrupt. The general order by the state was lifted on December 30th.
The spring brought a third wave of the disease, which was not as severe.
Please share your stories of how this pandemic is affecting your life. Together we can paint a realistic picture of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic and its effect on Douglas County.
Help us create a record of the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic by sharing your photos and stories with the Douglas County historical Society. You can share your photos in our community folder here: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1rFgwJuWZLhS_BXsyZN_H87PLLXBCw8Zh?usp=sharing.
You can also share your stories on our website or contact us to schedule an interview: