The Spanish Influenza versus COVID-19

by Kimberly Lerch  |  Published: June 8, 2020

Imagine being able to sit down with the Surgeon General of the United States during the Spanish Influenza outbreak of 1918 and a top doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the current COVID-19 crisis at the same time and ask them a few questions about the pandemic du jour. Well, we can, thanks to the Oct. 15, 1918 article “Uncle Sam’s Advice on the Flu” in The Quill from the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections and the CDC’s extensive website dedicated strictly to the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Note that this material is meant for  historical comparison only; it does not guarantee accurate scientific information. Please consult your healthcare provider immediately if you suspect you have symptoms of COVID-19 or may have been exposed.

The diseases are different; the questions are the same. What about the answers? What can we learn from how the Spanish Flu pandemic was handled?

Get a drink, grab a seat, and let’s interview Surgeon General Rupert Blue and the experts at the CDC.

This table is a creative reconstruction using previously published material found in the article named above and the CDC’s website dedicated to COVID-19.

Surgeon General Rupert BlueExperts at the CDC
What is the Spanish Influenza?What is COVID-19?
The disease now occurring in this country and called 'Spanish Influenza' resembles a very contagious kind of 'cold,' accompanied by fever, pains in the head, eyes, ears, back or other parts of the body and a feeling of severe sickness.Human coronaviruses were first identified in the mid-1960s. Sometimes coronaviruses that infect animals can evolve and make people sick and become a new human coronavirus (see Human Coronavirus Types). A novel coronavirus is a new coronavirus that has not been previously identified. There are many types of human coronaviruses including some that commonly cause mild upper-respiratory tract illnesses. COVID-19 is a new disease, caused by a novel (or new) coronavirus that has not previously been seen in humans, as explained on the CDC's COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page.
Is it like other flus?Is it like other coronaviruses?
Whether this so-called 'Spanish' influenza is identical with the epidemics of influenza of earlier years is not yet known.COVID-19 is a new disease. The virus causing COVID-19 is not the same as the coronaviruses that commonly circulate among humans and cause mild illness, like the common cold (Prepare Your Health from the CDC).
Did it originate in Spain?Did it originate in Wuhan?
Although the present influenza is called 'Spanish influenza,' there is no reason to believe that it originated in Spain. Some writers who have studied the question believe that the epidemic came from the Orient and they call attention to the fact that the Germans mention the disease occurring along the eastern front in the summer and fall of 1917.The sequences from U.S. patients are similar to the ones that China initially posted, suggesting a likely single, recent emergence of this virus from an animal reservoir. However, the exact source of this virus is unknown, according to the CDC's COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions.
How do you identify it?
There is as yet no way in which a single case of 'Spanish influenza' can be recognized. On the other hand, recognition is easy where there is a group of cases. In contrast to the outbreaks of ordinary coughs and colds, which usually occur in the cold months, epidemics of influenza may occur at any season of the year. Thus the present epidemic raged most intensely in Europe in May, June and July. Moreover, in the case of ordinary colds, the general symptoms (fever, pain, depression) are no means as severe or as sudden in their onset as they are in influenza. Finally, ordinary colds do not spread through the community so rapidly or so extensively as does influenza.The CDC's Testing for COVID-19 page states that two kinds of tests are available for COVID-19: viral tests and antibody tests. A viral test tells you if you have a current infection. An antibody test tells you if you had a previous infection. An antibody test may not be able to show if you have a current infection, because it can take 1-3 weeks after infection to make antibodies.
What are the symptoms?
In most cases a person taken sick with influenza feels sick rather suddenly. He feels weak, has pains in the eyes, ears, head or back, and may be sore all over. Many patients feel dizzy, some vomit. Most of the patients complain of feeling chilly, and with this comes a fever in which the temperature rises to 100 to 104. In most cases the pulse remains relatively slow. In appearance one is struck by the fact that the patient looks sick. His eyes and the inner side of the eyelids may be slightly 'bloodshot,' or 'congested,' as the doctors say. There may be running from the nose, or there may be some cough. These signs of a cold may not be marked; nevertheless the patient looks and feels very sick.The CDC has compiled symptom information on their page, Symptoms of Coronavirus. People with COVID-19 have had a wide range of symptoms reported – ranging from mild symptoms to severe illness. Symptoms may appear 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. People with these symptoms may have COVID-19:
  • Fever or chills

  • Cough

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Muscle or body aches

  • Headache

  • New loss of taste or smell

  • Sore throat

  • Congestion or runny nose

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Diarrhea
This list does not include all possible symptoms.
What is the course of the disease? How long does it last and do people die from it?
Ordinarily, the fever lasts from three to four days and the patient recovers. But while the proportion of deaths in the present epidemic has generally been low, in some places the outbreak has been severe and deaths have been numerous. When death occurs it is usually the result of a complication.For most people, symptoms last a few days, and people usually feel better after a week, according to the CDC's Caring for Someone Sick at Home page.

For daily death updates of totals by week and state, visit the CDC's page, COVID-19 Daily Updates of Totals by Week and State
How is it spread?
It is now believed it is spread from person to person, the germs being carried with the air along with very small droplets of mucus, expelled by coughing or sneezing, forceful talking and the like by one who already has the germs of the disease. They may be carried in the air in the form of dust from dried mucus, from coughing and sneezing, or from careless people who spit on the floor and on the sidewalk. As in most other catching diseases, a person with only a mild attack of the disease himself may give a very severe attack to others.According to the CDC's page on How to Protect Yourself and Others:

  • The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).

  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.

  • These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or can possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

  • Some recent studies have suggested that COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms.
What should be done by those infected?
It is very important that every sick person who becomes sick with influenza should go home at once and go to bed. This will keep away dangerous complications and will, at the same time, keep the patient from scattering the disease far and wide.If you think you may have been exposed to COVID-19, contact your healthcare provider. Keep track of your symptoms. If you have an emergency warning sign (including trouble breathing), get emergency medical care immediately. If you have a fever, cough, or other symptoms, contact your healthcare provider immediately (What to Do If You Are Sick from the CDC).
Tips for the nurse/attendant/caretaker
It is highly desirable that no one be allowed to sleep in the same room with the patient. In fact, no one but the nurse should be allowed in the room.

If there is cough and sputum or running of the eyes and nose, care should be taken that all such discharges are collected on bits of gauze or rag or paper napkins and burned. If the patient complains of fever and headache, he should be given water to drink, a cold compress to the forehead and a light sponge. Only such medicine should be given as is prescribed by the doctor. It is foolish to ask the druggist to prescribe and may be dangerous to take the so-called 'safe, sure and harmless' remedies advertised by patent medicine manufacturers.

If the patient is so situated that he can be attended only by some one who must also look after others in the family, it is advisable that such attendant wear a wrapper, apron or gown over the ordinary house clothes while in the sick room and slip this off when leaving to look after the others.

Nurses and attendants will do well to guard against breathing in the dangerous disease germs by wearing a simple fold of gauze or mask while near the patient.
The CDC has many suggestions to answer the question "What should I do if someone in my house gets sick with COVID-19?"

  • Use a separate room and bathroom for sick household members (if possible).

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing; going to the bathroom; and before eating or preparing food.

  • If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.

  • Provide your sick household member with clean disposable facemasks to wear at home, if available, to help prevent spreading COVID-19 to others.

  • Clean the sick room and bathroom, as needed, to avoid unnecessary contact with the sick person.

  • Avoid sharing personal items like utensils, food, and drinks.
For a much more extensive list of advice on caring for someone with COVID-19, go to the CDC's Caring for Someone Sick at Home page.
Does the patient develop immunity after having had the disease?
It is well known that an attack of measles or scarlet fever or small pox usually protects a person against another attack of the same disease. This appears not to be true of 'Spanish influenza.' According to newspaper reports the King of Spain suffered an attack of influenza during the epidemic thirty years ago, and was again stricken during the recent outbreak in Spain.The CDC's Testing for COVID-19 page reports that we do not know yet if having antibodies to the virus can protect someone from getting infected with the virus again, or how long that protection might last.
What can I do to avoid catching this flu?What can I do to avoid catching COVID-19?
In guarding against disease of all kinds, it is important that the body be kept strong and able to fight off disease germs. This can be done by having a proper proportion of work, play and rest, by keeping the body well clothed, and by eating sufficient wholesome and properly selected food. In connection with diet, it is well to remember that milk is one of the best all-around foods obtainable for adults as well as children. So far as a disease like influenza is concerned, health authorities everywhere recognized the very close relation between its spread and overcrowded homes. While it is not always possible, especially in times like the present, to avoid such overcrowding, people should consider the health danger and make every effort to reduce the home overcrowding to a minimum. The value of fresh air through open windows cannot be overemphasized.

When crowding is unavoidable, as in street cars, care should be taken to keep the face turned as not to inhale directly the air breathed out by another person.

It is especially important to beware of the person who coughs or sneezes without covering his mouth and nose. It also follows that one should keep out of crowds and stuffy places as much as possible, keep homes, offices and workshops well aired, spend some time out of doors each day, walk to work if at all practicable-- in short make every possible effort to breathe as much pure air as possible.

In all health matters follow the advice of your doctor and obey the regulations of your local and state health officers.
  • Know how it spreads

  • Wash your hands often

  • Avoid close contact

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth cover when around others

  • Cover coughs and sneezes

  • Clean and disinfect

  • Monitor your health
are the sections headings on the CDC's How to Protect Yourself & Others page. Visit that page for more detailed instructions on each topic.

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