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Avoiding repeat of 1918 when 675K Americans died from a coronavirus
flu mask

It took a coronavirus such as the one originating from the Wuhan area in China that has prompted the World Health Organization to declare a global health emergency and the United States a public health emergency to get the fledging community of Manteca 102 years ago to get serious about public health.

The flu epidemic of 1918 killed 5 percent of the global population — 50 million people that included 675,000 people in the United States as well as 3 in Manteca that had a population of 1,200 at the time. To put that in perspective, the same death rate with today’s population of 85,000 people would translate to 212 Manteca residents dying.

The hardest hit California city based on death rate per 100,000 people was San Francisco where more than 3,000 people died.

A coronavirus is a virus that makes both animals and people sick.

Manteca reacted swiftly to the first local flu case. The City Council on Nov. 1, 1918 passed an ordinance requiring anyone on city streets to wear a face mask or be subject to a $10 fine. Based on inflation over the past 100 years, that would translate today into a $183 fine.

Schools were closed. Public gatherings prohibited. Churches suspended services.

With no hospital in Manteca, the original Yosemite School where the Manteca Day School that now stands on West Yosemite Avenue was turned into a makeshift hospital. Classrooms were converted into hospital wards. Teachers stayed at the school 24/7 to care for the sick.

The city, when entire families were stricken, would quarantine them. Such families were checked on once day and had food, clothing, and linen supplied by the city.

By mid-November 1918 there were 49 quarantined families in Manteca. The town’s only physician was treating 15 patients a day in Manteca plus others in Lathrop and French Camp.

By the time February 1919 rolled around half of the city had been infected and three had died. The good news was the absence of new cases.

After the quarantine was lifted the first city council meeting the topic was building a hospital and getting a physician to man it.

That led to the hospital that is now the HOPE Family Shelter at Yosemite and Sequoia avenues being built for $20,000. It had 18 private rooms and two wards. The hospital opened Aug. 1, 1919 and closed 11 months later. The city didn’t have a hospital until 1962 when Manteca Hospital — that is now Doctors Hospital of Manteca — opened.

The reason this is important to know is that the current coronavirus — that until recently did not exist has killed 631 people with at least 17,205 infected — is essentially a wildcard.

There is no firm scientific grasp on the virus that is spreading rapidly around the globe due to modern mobility. As of Saturday there were 8 known cases in the United States. It’s swift spread and lack of vaccines is why the first federal quarantine in 50 years was ordered that put 194 American citizens flown out of Wuhan at March Air Reserve Base in Southern California for 14 days.

Most of us act as if this is no big deal.

And it may not be.

But we also are fools if we think we have mastered everything so therefore we control the universe. The truth is we don’t. And even though we have the advantage of living in a fairly enlightened time it does no good if we act as if we are bulletproof and dismiss common sense.

If you don’t think we can’t become victims of our smugness when it comes to battling a virus, consider how we’ve been taken in when it comes to water.

As Americans we have the cleanest and safest water in earth flowing from taps fed by municipal water systems. Yet studies show we pay 300 times more per gallon of bottled water — a $1.21— than for tap water. And if you segregate the fact two thirds of all bottled water is sold in plastic bottles that hold 16.9 ounces then we are paying almost 2,000 times more for bottled water than tap water.

Toss in the fact we are going through 60 million of those 16.9 ounce bottles a day with more than 80 percent being landfilled, then we start looking real stupid.

So what does this have to do with a coronavirus?

Plenty as it illustrates how we ignore the obvious when it comes to our own good when we start believing how great mankind is now that 6-year-olds carry around handheld devices that can blow the doors off of numerous previous technology advances from a wall mounted crank phone and boxy 4 by 6 film cameras to the first IBM computers that filled entire rooms.

That 1918 epidemic was different than most flu. That’s due to the victims weren’t just those under 5 or over 65 who had weaker immune systems because they either hadn’t fully developed or they had been compromised or those who were already ill. It also included a large number of healthy people between the ages of 20 and 45 that died.  The Wuhan coronavirus could buck the trend as well.

While much ado is being made about the unknown coronavirus that has yet to kill an American, more than 2,000 Americans have died from flu during the last three months.

Modern health care knowledge can’t help us if we ignore reasonable precautions. We don’t get flu shots as we may have an adverse reaction and get sick or else we go ahead and get the flu anyway. Yet we conveniently forget epidemics that would kill in great numbers happened at least once a generation were common before the advent of modern medicines, modern health care practices and modern sanitation.

And often times that handheld device we act as if it has made us gods or at least super smart is used to circulate information that ultimately undermines our confidence in the science and practices that assures a virus won’t kill a couple thousand Americans a year instead of 675,000 in a year’s time as it did just 102 years ago.

The health authorities could be wrong about this coronavirus or they could be right.

But the one thing they’re not doing is being overcautious.

If it gets wheels it could be catastrophic. And if it doesn’t and is more like a typical coronavirus outbreak then thousands will still end up dying worldwide.

Health authorities are not willing to spin the roulette wheel on this one given how fast it has spread, the deaths it has caused to date, and given there is no known vaccine meaning keeping those exposed to it in quarantine until the incubation period has passed is the only way to prevent it from spreading.