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Precautionary Rules and the Spanish Influenza
By Hillary Delaney
On October 10, 1918, a list of “Precautionary Rules” designed to reduce the spread of the Spanish influenza pandemic was published on page one of the Boone County Recorder. At the time the article ran, some measures were already in place in most localities in Northern Kentucky, but the pandemic’s toll was not nearly yet understood. Dr. William F. Lincoln, a regional adviser for the Red Cross, was the source of the advice given in the newspaper. The steps outlined were as follows: treat all cold symptoms as possible signs of influenza, stay home to avoid spreading the disease, avoid crowds, regulate bodily functions, avoid expelled secretions from people suffering from cold symptoms, rinse nasal passages and gargle two to three times daily, wear warm and dry clothing, and health workers should wear masks. Most of these are common sense, taught to us by our parents as children, with one glaring omission: hand washing. This advice could be found in subsequent articles, often regarding washing hands prior to eating, but was not nearly understood or communicated with the same importance as today.
Our region was not unaccustomed to epidemics, but this one was clearly different. The movement of soldiers and sailors around the globe during WWI brought this virus to pandemic proportions, and it was a fast, and often deadly virus. The speed with which it progressed in the body was also faster than seasonal flu and colds, and it appeared to be an effective adversary to even the strongest people. At its peak in the fall of 1918, the area even began to experience a shortage of health care workers.
During the worst of the Spanish flu, restrictions were imposed on public gatherings, schools, churches and businesses, much like the restrictions of the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. One major difference was that public houses and restaurants were not ordered to be closed in 1918, because many people simply did not have a kitchen to use. It was common practice, particularly in urban areas, to rent a room and take meals out; restaurants and taverns were the sole source of meals for people in this circumstance. Though this was less common in rural Boone County, we did have smaller examples of this practice, and there was frequent exposure due to people coming and going between communities.
We all are now accustomed to hearing “social distancing,” but the concept was not as broadly recommended nor followed as in our modern practice. In fact, at the end of WWI, there were public celebrations, parades and parties, celebrating victory and the returning soldiers; all attended by the Spanish flu. The virus was devastating to communities all over the world, and Kentucky lost approximately, 14,000 souls over the two waves of outbreaks in 1918-19. As history has taught us, precaution is wise; wash your hands.