How Gunnison Dealt with the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic

And what the county's precautions can tell us, now.

The year was 1918 and the Spanish Flu pandemic was in full swing. The disease would, all told, claim many millions of lives, with an estimated half-billion cases. But, one small Colorado mountain county – namely Gunnison – had very few cases, at least for the first two waves of the Flu. According to the November 26, 1918 edition of the Montrose Press, “Gunnison and the vicinity surrounding it, are perhaps the freest from Spanish influenza of any point in the state.”

Today, as entire countries are “locking down” in response to COVID-19, it will come as no surprise that the key to Gunnison’s success was due to, as the article says, “the rigidity of the rules governing it [the town]”; that is, Gunnison locked down. Schools, churches, parties and public gatherings were forbidden. People were free to leave at any time, but new arrivals had to be quarantined. Preemptive quarantining seemed to the Gunnison officials of over a century ago like the best way to protect the people. F.P. Hanson, the county physician, said:

In order that our lives and those of our families may be better safeguarded, I have caused a strict quarantine to be placed on Gunnison County against the world. Barricades and fences have been erected on all main highways near the county lines; lanterns at night, and signs by day warning autos to go thru the county at once or submit to quarantine. Any person may leave the county at his will: None may return except those who will go into voluntary quarantine at a place designated by this office. Any person willfully molesting these barricades or deliberately endeavors to break this quarantine will be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law.

While many places were taking precautions of some kind, none were as strict in applying the measures as Gunnison. Crucially, Gunnison acted before it seemed absolutely necessary – before the Flu had even really reached the town, much less before it had a chance to gain a foothold. The newspaper article says:

…few cases have been reported and the homes where the disease has appeared, after recovery, have been fumigated thoroly, together with the clothing of all members of the family, before they were allowed to make their appearance in public. Strangers have not been allowed to remain overnight in Gunnison, and altho the inconvenience has been considerable to motorists, it has been the means, doubtless of preventing a spread of the disease. The health officers have taken the stand that the same or even greater precautions should be exercised in controlling this disease than with scarlet fever or smallpox, and they have acted accordingly, forcing the citizenship to follow their directions.

In February 1919, the quarantine was lifted, and it seems that there were some deaths, but only a few. Gunnison had survived the worst of the Spanish Flu remarkably unscathed. Of course, COVID-19 is certainly not the flu. But the best way to slow the spread – or rather, “flatten the curve,” i.e., prevent medical services from becoming overwhelmed – is to limit social interactions. This means not gathering in groups, closing institutions, limiting travel, and quarantining areas – before it becomes “necessary.”

The goal is simple: to deprive the virus of the opportunity to move from person to person. And this, we are learning, is important for everyone to bear in mind – the younger, the older, the immunocompromised, and the healthy alike: those who have minor or no symptoms are unknowingly helping to spread the disease. Indeed, mild cases (an estimated 80% of all cases) may be one of the main reasons for the rapid spread of the virus. This is why social distancing is so important. Please watch this Vox video for further explanation and some helpful visuals:

Sources: The Guardian, CHNC, Gunnison Country Times, Vox

Michael Peever