Despite technological advancements, COVID-19 made a bigger impact on Las Animas County than the 1918 Influenza Pandemic

Canon City, Colo., circa 1918. Photo courtesy of History Colorado

by Todd Brogowski
The year was 1918.  US military involvement in conflicts overseas overshadowed news of the disease burning through civilian and military populations alike.  Eight months passed from the start of the pandemic to its first mention in Trinidad newspapers.  Instead, headlines focused on a joint US naval victory over the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Those who read these first news stories regarding the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic may have believed the pandemic was occurring far from the shadow of Fishers Peak. On Oct. 4, 1918, the Chronicle-News reported on hundreds of influenza cases in Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Kentucky, and Ohio, along with outbreaks at US Army bases in Texas and Illinois. That same day, the newspaper reported that the US Surgeon General Rupert Blue warned that the only way to stop the pandemic was a “nationwide closing order” akin to what was done at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.  By Oct. 9, 1918, it was clear that the influenza pandemic was on Trinidad’s doorstep. A sense of panic crept into news reports. Then-mayor W.W. Taylor issued his first proclamation closing public establishments in Trinidad and establishing a quarantine in the community.Just as with COVID-19, some did not take the virus seriously. As a result of such scofflaws, the mayor issued a second proclamation on Oct. 20, 1918, stating that the city government was aware that parents were lax in “allowing children to be on the streets…” The mayor warned that he had instructed the Trinidad Chief of Police to arrest those who broke quarantine.
By the next day, though, Trinidad suffered 11 casualties, three from the same family (a father and his two daughters; his sons were fighting on the Western Front at the time).
After the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice ending World War I, the news in Trinidad regarding the influenza pandemic grew increasingly worse.  By Dec. 4, 1918, it was clear that Trinidad’s healthcare system was overwhelmed with cases, and work began on an emergency hospital at the corner of Baca and Arizona Streets.  Midway through December 1918, Trinidad had 223 active cases of influenza and 12 casualties.  Still, some residents refused to participate in quarantine measures.  Eventually, Trinidad would use its schoolteachers to investigate whether households were adhering to necessary quarantine measures.
Just as with the COVID-19 pandemic, the 1918 influenza pandemic was an extraordinary challenge for the community.  Colorado, as a whole, had 7,783 casualties from the influenza pandemic. Las Animas County did not maintain records of its deaths due to the 1918 influenza pandemic, nor did the state of Colorado.  However, from newspaper records, it appears that approximately 12 people died due to the 1918 pandemic.
Currently, COVID-19 has taken 11 lives in Las Animas County. While this does not seem catastrophic compared to the 1918 flu (and indeed seems almost equal to the 12 casualties due to the 1918 flu), it is worth noting that Las Animas County’s current population is 37% of what it was in 1918.  Additionally, healthcare providers in 1918 did not have the benefit of antiviral drugs, which were not discovered until 1963.  Also, the modern ventilator did not exist until roughly 1952.  Las Animas County has lost a larger share percentage-wise of its population due to COVID-19 than due to the 1918 pandemic.  Similarly, COVID-19 has been far more dangerous than influenza has been since 2018.  There have only been three influenza-related fatalities in Las Animas County over the last three years.
While COVID-19 has a more significant quantitative impact on Las Animas County than the 1918 pandemic, it is worth considering whether COVID-19 has been qualitatively worse for Las Animas County than the 1918 influenza pandemic. COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on older patients and patients with preexisting conditions. In contrast, the 1918 pandemic targeted children and young adults who were too young to have developed a partial influenza resistance due to the 1890 Russian Flu pandemic. Tragically, pregnant women were particularly at risk of dying due to the 1918 influenza outbreak.  Historian John Barry’s research into the 1918 influenza outbreak indicated at least a 23% mortality rate for pregnant women who contracted the A/H1N1 virus.
One hundred and two years have passed since the 1918 influenza pandemic. Modern medicine has access to a slate of antiviral medications.  Pharmaceutical companies have developed three different vaccines for COVID-19 (thus far).  Still, COVID-19 (and now its variants) has already made a more significant statistical impact than the 1918 pandemic.  Nonetheless, the public health emergency continues.
**This article would not have been possible without the research assistance of Tom Potter of the Trinidad Carnegie Public Library, Kim Gonzales of the Las Animas-Huerfano Counties Health Department, and the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine.*