Deadlier that WWI: The 1918 Flu Pandemic in Nebraska

Note: This was originally a column written by History Nebraska staff in November 1999 and distributed by the Nebraska Press Association to Nebraska newspapers.

November 11 marks the centennial of the armistice ending World War I. The war killed some 15 to 19 million people, military and civilian, including 751 Nebraska soldiers.

But the influenza pandemic of 1918 was even deadlier, killing somewhere between 50 and 100 million people. Nebraska’s disease reporting was incomplete, but the state’s death toll was variously reported between 2,800 to 7,500 people.

A new and deadly strain of the flu hit the U.S. early in 1918 and greatly intensified by September. The flu reached Nebraska by October: Red Cloud reported two flu deaths on October 2; Omaha reported its first case the next day; and Scottsbluff reported its first cases on the 15th.

Symptoms included high fever, cough, dizziness, and profuse perspiration. Frequently bronchial pneumonia developed, with death following in a high percentage of such cases. This strain of flu was unusual in that it was deadliest to healthy young adults. Omaha alone saw 974 deaths between October 5 and December 31.

On October 7 the state ordered the closing of all “schools, churches, places of entertainment or public congregation, pool halls and other places of amusement.” Mail carriers continued on their rounds, but wore white face masks for protection.

Quarantine rules were issued for affected homes. All residents of a house who had been in contact with a diseased person had to remain in the house until the quarantine was lifted. Only a doctor or nurse was permitted to enter or leave the house while the quarantine was in effect, though medical professionals were in short supply. Necessary supplies could be brought to the house and left outside the door. Soiled clothes could be sent to the laundry if placed in a package covered with paper.

The statewide ban on public gatherings was lifted on November 1, but the flu continued. Even World War I victory celebrations were limited in many towns. Valentine, for example, didn’t lift its local ban on public gatherings until November 29, and the University of Nebraska did not resume classes until after Thanksgiving.

There was almost nothing of a holiday season. No Christmas events or entertainments were held, and Nebraska merchants sustained severe losses from the slump in trade during the last six weeks of the year. By mid-January 1919, although national news stories indicated the epidemic still was claiming thousands of victims, in Nebraska the worst was over.

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