THE IMPORTANCE OF SOUND SCIENCE: How did Milwaukee fight off Spanish flu? It closed churches and sc…

By Anne Rowe for DPS board, April 11, 2020

THE IMPORTANCE OF SOUND SCIENCE: How did Milwaukee fight off Spanish flu? It closed churches and schools. But not saloons.

Milwaukee was among the most successful cities in minimizing the impact of the 1918-19 Spanish flu, though not all of the restrictions it imposed were popular.

Clergy weren’t pleased that in October 1918 the churches were closed, while saloons were not.

A study in The Journal of the American Medical Association compared cities using a measure called “excess death rate” for pneumonia and influenza. These numbers compared the number of deaths during the Spanish flu epidemic to the number that would have been expected in an ordinary year.

Milwaukee recorded just over 291 excess deaths per 100,000 people. Although Minneapolis did even better — 267 excess deaths per 100,000 people — many cities including Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Boston had excess death rates double that of Milwaukee.

One factor may have been that Milwaukee moved quickly in response to the pandemic.

In the third week of September, city Health Commissioner George C. Ruhland contacted city doctors asking them to report the number of influenza cases they had treated. He learned the number was about 100, according to J. Alexander Navarro, a co-author of the study and assistant director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan.

Ruhland worked with other doctors to launch a public education campaign. Using printed literature and lantern slides, the campaign gave advice on avoiding influenza in English, Russian, Lithuanian, Yiddish and Italian.

On Oct. 7, Ruhland established and secured funding for a number of isolation hospitals. Some of the money was specifically put toward isolation and care involving the city’s poor.

Following state recommendations, Ruhland on Oct. 10 agreed to close churches and other public gatherings. Public funerals were banned. On Oct. 12, Ruhland closed all schools.

Although saloons were allowed to remain open as usual for dining, “patrons stopping by for a drink had to consume it quickly and then leave,” Navarro said.

In mid-October, the health commissioner asked factories to stagger work hours to avoid overcrowding the streetcars.

Current-era public health officials take note.

Posted by Glenn Reynolds at 7: 30 am