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Houston History: The flu pandemic Houston faced 100 years ago

Article clip from the Houston Post's newspaper published on October 10, 1918
Article clip from the Houston Post's newspaper published on October 10, 1918 (University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History)

HOUSTON – Hour by hour, the City of Houston is working around the clock, hoping to flatten the curve and avoid a rapid spread of COVID-19.

There are now stricter regulations on social distancing than ever before. Houstonians are working remotely, businesses are temporarily shutting down, entertainment venues, bars, and clubs are no longer permitted to run and restaurants are now limited to only curbside pickup or delivery options.

For many people today, this concept of isolation is new. However, for the city, this isn’t the first time these drastic measures needed to take place.

Nearly 100 years ago in 1918, the world dealt with the pandemic influenza, known as the “Spanish flu.” With little to no knowledge of this influenza, people were dying at a rapid rate. Victims died within hours or days of developing symptoms, their skin turning blue and their lungs filling with fluid that caused them to suffocate.

According to the CDC, it’s believed that about 500 million people became infected with the virus, equivalent to about one-third of the world’s population.

In the U.S., there were about 675,000 deaths. In fact, there were more people were dying from the disease than in battle during World War I.

Related: 2 cities handled this health crisis different. The results couldn’t have been more opposite.

With no vaccine and no antibiotics to protect against influenza infection, national leaders suggested to isolate and quarantine. That’s exactly what Houston did. Although the spread began in the early spring of 1918, cities in Texas didn’t become affected until fall.

According to the Houston Post, now the Houston Chronicle, it was reported that there were between 600 and 700 cases of Spanish influenza at Camp Logan, now Memorial Park on Sept. 24, 1918. By the end of the year, nearly 110 men would die at the camp from the virus.

On Oct. 9, 1918, at 3 p.m., acting mayor Dan M. Moody proclaimed that all schools, theaters and public gatherings were prohibited until further notice.

This action was recommended by Major John M. Holt. Major Hold told the members of the council that the situation appeared to be getting worse and the epidemic had not yet been reached in the city.

For 17 days, Houstonians remained in their homes in quarantine, hoping to slow the spread of this unknown disease.

By Friday, Oct. 25 the order was lifted at midnight. The city was back to normal operations and Houston was eager to celebrate. Major Holt believed that conditions in the city had improved with this temporary shutdown.

At the time, Houston wasn’t the only city in Texas dealing with the Spanish flu. Other cities such as Austin, San Antonio and Dallas also had a temporary shutdown.

However, this wasn’t the only time we had encountered a pandemic in the city. According to the Health Museum, “though the influenza pandemic of 1918 caused a very high number of deaths worldwide, other epidemics, including yellow fever outbreaks of the mid-1800s and polio outbreaks in the 1940s and 1950s, caused more devastation in the Greater Houston Area.”

As a city, we were able to overcome many pandemics; just like history, we will overcome COVID-19.

Learn more about the 1918 flu pandemic in the video below.


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