Pandemic Historian: Don't Rush Reopening. In 1918, Some States Ran Straight Into More Death.Roundup
tags: pandemics, medical history, influenza, COVID-19
Dr. Howard Markel is the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine and Director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School. He is the author of "When Germs Travel."
I am a historian of pandemics. Like an accountant preparing his clientele’s income taxes, you might say, “This is my busy season!”
From 2005 to 2007, I led a group of historians at the University of Michigan, who worked with epidemiologists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to study the use of social distancing measures during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. That pandemic still holds the record as the worst contagious crisis in human history. It killed about 40 million lives worldwide, including up to 550,000 Americans.
We looked at how 43 large American cities responded to that contagious crisis with some combination of isolating the ill and quarantining suspected cases; banning public gatherings; and closing down schools.
In the cities that acted early, for sustained periods, and used more than one social distancing measure at a time, we found the case and death rates to be significantly lower compared to the cities that did not take such measures. We concluded that when facing an easily transmissible pandemic, social distancing measures should be considered — though as a last resort and only for a highly lethal infection because these measures are so disruptive to society.
Indeed, this is where the concept of “flattening the curve” originated — soon to be buried in a 2007 CDC report on pandemics only to be given new life, force and power in the COVID-19 era.