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"Churches, Schools, and Theaters Closed" in Breckenridge, CO

This sub-headline, from the Summit County Journal, is not from March 2020, but from January 31, 1920. Yes, a full century ago the County was dealing with the Spanish Influenza epidemic.

What is different and what is the same?

In March, 1918, amid WWI in Europe, there was a second enemy. No one is quite sure where the pandemic first developed; it was possibly a Kansas army base, France, or Spain. As this new strain of influenza spread and killed thousands, it was erroneously named the Spanish Flu. The name appears to derive from the fact that countries involved in the war censored information about the epidemic, while Spain, not involved in the war, allowed the news out. Although the novel coronavirus pandemic is believed to have started in China, the exact virus is known: COVID-19.

Breckenridge was a thriving mining town in 1920, with a population of 796. It was a small town in comparison to the projected 2020 census count of just over 5,000. Still, in many ways the times were similar. When Spanish Influenza invaded the town in early October, 1918, for the first of several outbreaks, it was an election year. Health authorities banned all gatherings. It was surmised in the Summit County Journal that the Democrats hoped the Health Department didn’t, “conclude that hand shaking spread flu.” If only they knew the elbow bump!

Schools are closed for the remainder of the 2020 academic year. On October 12, 1918, schools remained open, but any student displaying symptoms was sent home immediately. One week later, the town was closing down. Just as “all forms of entertainment” were closed in October of 1918, ski resorts, movie theaters, and all other non-essential businesses are closed now. Today, the Summit Daily noted that some restaurants which had continued to offer take-out service are closing.

Dr. Condon examines a patient in Breckenridge, CO

By the 19th of October, 1918, the State Board of Health prohibited all gatherings, and it was announced that police would strictly enforce the order. Just two weeks later, it was believed that Breckenridge had escaped the epidemic. Alas, it was not to be so; by November 2nd there were 60 cases reported in town. During the 1st week of November, there were new cases and fatalities being reported daily. By the middle of the month, 50% of the town was stricken. Whole families fell ill, teachers became volunteer nurses, and people were kept home. The town was divided into 4 districts, each with a captain responsible for reporting cases and providing assistance. Food and fuel were provided for every family affected by influenza.

Today, families are again in need due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although only 14 cases are confirmed in Summit County, many more people are likely infected. With businesses closed, townspeople out of work, and residents ordered to stay home, assistance is needed. Non-profit organizations are offering food and rent relief, and private individuals are donating both time and money.

Preventative steps are being combined with new and existing medications to provide relief from the virus. In 1918 there were similar ideas. An advertisement in the Summit County Journal suggested, “Avoid crowds, coughs and cowards, but fear not...germs.” As a preventative, you could take Dr. Pierce’s Pleasant Pellets. If that didn’t work, drink “copious” amounts of hot lemonade and wrap your feet in hot mustard.

There are several differences between the Spanish Flu pandemic and the COVID-19 pandemic: the most obvious change is our information technology and ability to connect throughout the crisis by phone, computer, and especially, social media. Another difference is the existence of privacy laws. In 1918, every patient was listed in the newspaper, as well as their condition, and of course the deaths. Today, under HIPPA, that would not be allowed.

No one knows how long today’s pandemic will last. Our ancestors a century ago didn’t know either. In January, 1919, the worst seemed to be over in Breckenridge. During the preceding Fall, when the flu tore through the town, Dredge Camp 2 was quarantined. Just two months later, the Dredge Master and two of the 29 other residents had fallen ill.

Exactly 101 years ago today, there were 50 cases of flu, and five dead in Dillon. Considering that the population of the town was reportedly 126, that is an infection rate of 47%! Only four cases were in Breckenridge, all having come from Dillon. Mayor Robinson of Breckenridge feared for the townspeople. He ordered the Marshall to keep all those traveling from Dillon from entering Breckenridge. If they came by train, they were to immediately be taken into quarantine. If they traveled by road, they were to be turned back at the city limits.

The worst of the pandemic was still to come. A full year later, at the end of January 1920, people from around the state traveled to the Stock Show in Denver. Evidently, politicians in Denver, under pressure from businessmen concerned about the economy, kept a re-emergence of the flu quiet. Businesses were kept open, and the Stock Show went on as planned. Travelers brought the epidemic back to their respective towns. By January 31st, there were 40 cases reported in Breckenridge. The Mayor and Town Board closed schools and banned all gatherings, hiring an assistant Marshall to enforce all quarantine regulations. In early February the Arlington Hotel was converted to a hospital. There were only two trained nurses in town, despite 80 cases in the County. One of the nurses was brought in from Leadville, and volunteers, including teachers, were once again pressed into service.

We can continue to learn from the “Spanish Flu of 1918.” The closing of businesses and distancing of people seem to be the most effective means of bringing this crisis to an end. Reopening businesses too quickly could once again cause a recurrence when we believe we are “past the apex.” Two things remain resolutely unchanged after all these years: the caring of this rugged frontier town for its people and the compassion those citizens show each other.

written by Phyl Rubinstein

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