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Sheltering in Place
Written April 22, 2020


A tiny virus brings the world to a standstill?  A common reaction is “There's never been anything like this in my life!”

The “Spanish flu” epidemic of 1918, the last year of World War I, was barely within the lifetime of my parents.  They were five and nine years old then.

In Ohio's Union County, where I would later grow up, Sam Dillon of the Marysville Journal-Tribune has written an article based on his newspaper's files.  Headlined “Pandemics are nothing new for Union County,” it was reprinted in the Richwood Gazette for April 15, 2020.

I've adapted his research (in blue) and added details from the wider nation.  Here are some key dates from 1918.

March 4

In Kansas, an Army cook at Fort Riley reported sick with the flu.  Within days, 521 other men also fell ill.

Aug. 28

The flu broke out on a Navy ship in Boston Harbor.

Sept. 17

Philadelphia reported its first civilian case.

Sept. 28

The annual Liberty Loan parade brought out 200,000 patriotic Philadelphians who jammed Broad Street.

Oct. 3

Five days later, 2,600 had died.  The disease threatened to overwhelm the city's medical and public health resources.  Interventions were ordered, like school closures and bans on public gatherings.  Nevertheless, in the week of October 19, the flu would kill one in every 389 Philadelphians.

Oct. 5

St. Louis reported its first civilian case.  The city administration was quick to take action.

Oct. 7

Only two days later, St. Louis mandated social distancing.  That flattened the curve, and the death toll turned out to be much less than in Philadelphia. 

Oct. 10

Ohio Governor James Cox sent letters to the state's major cities, urging them to close down all public places.

Oct. 15

Although Marysville wasn't a major city, Mayor Hopkins ordered most businesses to shut their doors by 8 p.m.  Also, saloons were limited to ten customers, and the doors and windows had to be kept open.  (Saloons provided many working-class folks with affordable meals they couldn't get elsewhere.)  Marysville schools were closed until further notice.

Oct. 25

To comply with the state order, Marysville churches also closed their doors.

Nov. 11

An Armistice was signed!  The World War was over!  So was the lockdown in Marysville.  Schools reopened; businesses and churches had reopened the previous day.

Nov. 16

Whoops.  The war might have ended, but the flu hadn't.  About 50 cases had developed in Marysville during the week, perhaps due to excessive celebration, so the lockdown had to be reinstated.

Nov. 22

With 400 new cases in the county, a 13-room hospital was opened on Fifth Street.

To keep people isolated, city health official Dr. P.P. Longbrake ordered a placard placed on every home with a known case of the flu.

Dec. 13

The city had reported only one new case in three days, so Dr. Longbrake declared an end to the epidemic in Marysville.

Dec. 31

Elsewhere in the county, schools were finally allowed to reopen.

“In April 1919, President Woodrow Wilson fell deathly ill in Paris — he had the flu.  ‘At the moment of physical and nervous exhaustion, Woodrow Wilson was struck by a viral infection that had neurological ramifications,’ biographer A. Scott Berg wrote in Wilson.  ‘Generally predictable in his actions, Wilson began blurting unexpected orders.’  Never the same after this illness, Wilson would make unexpected concessions during the talks that produced the Versailles Treaty.”

— Kenneth C. Davis for Smithsonian.  Six months later, Wilson was felled by a stroke.

Influenza had infected one-third of the world's population.  In America, it resulted in 675,000 deaths.

Later, particularly in 1952 when I was five years old, there was an outbreak of the paralyzing disease known as polio.  There were 57,879 people infected nationwide that year, 1,739 in Ohio — mainly children under five.  Here's that timeline.

August 15, 1952

The Union County health board reported nine polio cases in the county.

August 28

Now there were 15.

September 2

With 18 Union County cases, half of them in Marysville, the county school board closed all schools for the foreseeable future.  The Union County Fair was canceled, and Marysville's mayor banned public gatherings of any kind.


The warm-weather “polio season” was over.  The county had reported only one additional case.

March 26, 1953

Dr. Jonas Salk of the University of Pittsburgh announced a successful test of a polio vaccine.

About 1954

Perhaps because I was an unathletic little boy, a much more active classmate on the playground asked whether I'd had polio.  I hadn't.


April, 1955


Salk's vaccine was adopted throughout the United States, later to be supplemented by the Sabin oral vaccine.  I would receive both immunizations.

August 3, 1955

The Magnetic Springs Polio Rehabilitation Center opened.  It was a former resort hotel 11 miles north of Marysville.

About 1958

With fewer patients to rehabilitate, the Center was soon to close when I visited as a member of the Junior Choir from Richwood's First Methodist Church.


No new cases were reported in the United States.

For her blog, Virginia Montanez dug up some century-old Pittsburgh newspaper clippings.  She concluded:  “It's all there.  In the past.  The prohibiting of hospital visitations.  The shuttering of businesses.  The canceling of funerals.  Cities and states and federal entities fighting about supplies and money.  Blame being placed and shifted and deflected.  We are, in some respects, living through history right now, but really?  We are just repeating it.  All of it.  And therefore, we will come out of it just like Pittsburghers of the past did.  Bit by bit.  Slowly returning to normal.  Quarantines lifted.  Life moving on.”

Stay the course, everyone!



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