The State of Emergency: This is not Wallowa County’s first rodeo

“For three months the schools, the churches, the lodges, and the theatres have been closed, and a wet blanket thrown over every other sort of business, but that seems to be the extent of any effort to control the disease.” So starts an editorial column in the January 16, 1919 Wallowa Record Chieftain. The county was beset by the flu—more specifically the devastating influenza outbreak of 1918-1919. The writer, A.C. Miller, goes on to say “Nothing apparently has been done to segregate and control individual cases. Sick people are free to come and go without hindrance…such management is insufficient.”

If this seems strikingly and oddly familiar, the experiences and attempts to control a viral disease a century ago still have validity today. The 1918 influenza pandemic came at a time before vaccines, before sophisticated tests, and before a CDC. The best—and only—means of control was to keep the rates of contagion down. And the best way to do that was to prohibit assemblies and gatherings. The opening of the new OK Theatre was delayed for months until Jan 25, 1919 because of the epidemic. And when it did open, a physician was present to ensure that patrons sat at least three seats apart. Wallowa County must have listened to A.C. Miller because in the Jan. 23 issue the paper proudly announced, “The flu ban is lifted for new methods. Schools and public gatherings permitted but individuals will be quarantined.”

Globally, the 1918 Influenza pandemic killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, according to Stanford University. Casualties were mostly younger healthier people. A tour of Wallowa County’s cemeteries will reveal the tombstones of those in their 20’s and younger who likely perished from the disease.

Today we are faced with another viral pandemic: COVID-19. It is different, milder, and perhaps more contained, but hauntingly familiar. Its victims are usually the elderly or infirm. Its morbidity rate is around 3 percent. It is unlikely to kill millions. Like the 1918 pandemic, it walks among us every day. And like 1918, we have no vaccine and no quickly available diagnosis. It takes a week to learn whether your cough and fever are due to coronavirus or something else.

So following the sage advice of the CDC and local providers is wise. It is generally the same advice given to citizens here in 1918. Don’t go to work if you are sick. Avoid going to big public events. Wash your hands with soap and fervor for 20 seconds. If you cough, do so into an elbow. Or better, a tissue that you can discard (unlike an elbow…). If you have a fever and cough, consult a physician, but call ahead.

Gov. Brown’s declaration of an emergency last week may have seemed extreme, but it wisely served to free-up resources, including extra medical personnel and additional funds.

So far there are no cases in Wallowa County. So far our schools and other institutions have made plans to deal with cases should and when they occur. The idea of closing schools, theaters, churches, and lodges here seems somewhat far-fetched, although it is happening elsewhere. Let’s keep it that way.

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