From 1918 to 1919 there were three waves of influenza that were part of the global Spanish Flu pandemic killing 50 million worldwide. How did Mexico and Audrain County react at that time and what was happening in the community’s history?
The first reports of an illness hit the The Mexico Weekly Ledger April 4, 1918, while public health reports from Kansas noted 18 severe cases, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention timeline.
This is when community members were trying to get a county hospital established. A vote was to be held April 5, 1918. Mexico had a hospital but it just did not have the capacity to handle the entire county population or the most up-to-date equipment for the time.
Benton City Farmer J.E. Northcutt wrote in late March 1918 that surgeries his daughters needed were done in Mexico. One of Northcutt’s daughters would not have survived the trip to Kansas City or St. Louis for an emergency appendectomy, he wrote.
There were at least 75 illness-related absences from the high school reported April 4, 1918. Comparing to today, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 in Audrain County as of Monday afternoon. Statewide cases of COVID-19 were at 2,367 with 34 reported deaths, as of Sunday.
"The grippe epidemic is sweeping the country and Mexico has simply been caught in it," then Superintendent L.B. Hawthorne said.
Students were fainting during morning announcements and drills, with one sustaining injuries requiring stitches. Most were recovering, according to then reporting. Because of this, The Mexico Weekly Ledger would report that the epidemic was subsiding. It wasn’t.
The flu outbreak was being reported as trench fever, the following week. The vote on establishing a county hospital also passed overwhelmingly. Flu-like outbreaks were first reported March 1918, according to the CDC timeline.
The then St. Louis health department diagnostician M.C. Woodruff said the disease resembled trench fever. Trench fever was passed by lice and Audrain County and Mexico residents were guessing it was the same thing.
Trench fever is noted to have a rash and children affected at the time did not have a rash. What they did have was fever, nausea and dizziness, which was associated with trench fever.
The next week — April 18, 1918 — members of the Audrain County Hospital board were visiting hospitals in Boonville and Kansas City. The board also voted to keep the Mexico hospital open until the new one could be built.
September is when a second wave of influenza hit the U.S. Mexico Weekly Ledgers from the time had an uptick in reported deaths on the front page, where some noted "complications from illness" as the cause of death.
The American Red Cross in Audrain County sought to establish youth branches, and materials for personal protective equipment.
The hospital was closer to construction. Architectural plans were approved September 1918.
The first influenza-related deaths from Audrain County were reported Oct. 3 and they were for two men who were serving in the U.S. Navy. They both died at out-of-state naval bases. The second to die, Warren Hooper Callaway, was still undergoing training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. He had enlisted in August and was 21 years old.
Other county deaths were being attributed to other illnesses or pneumonia and not yet to to influenza. Mexico started to seriously react to the flu the week of Oct. 6. The school board and city board of health met Oct. 9 and voted to close "all schools, picture shows, church meetings, public gatherings, pool halls and assemblages," through Oct. 15. The community at that time had around 50 reported cases of influenza, but no in-county deaths.
In comparison, Mexico School District opted to end classes March 20 and switched to an online model for education. Audrain County did not issue a stay-at-home order, but Gov. Mike Parson did issue a statewide order on Friday. It went into effect Monday and lasts through April 24.
Gladys Van Ness, a former Mexico Weekly Ledger reporter and nursing assistant at the Mexico hospital, was called up Oct. 7, 1918 to to go Camp McClelland, Alabama, to serve as a nurse at the army base. She had enlisted to serve.
"She has been deeply interested in this field of endeavor [nursing] since the war began, and has been preparing herself carefully for the call of duty," the paper reported.
The Red Cross then started to supply volunteer nurses to Mexico to help combat the virus’ spread. There were not enough trained nurses to handle the number of patients. The volunteer nurses mostly knew first-aid practices, but received more specialized training in caring for those with influenza.
There were 281 cases of the flu in Mexico as of Oct. 24, 1918. The paper also reported that cases were decreasing, but that was only from a one-day report of no new cases. The closure order originally issued Oct. 9 was extended to Nov. 2, 1918.
By Nov. 7, there were 350 cases of influenza in Mexico and nine deaths. The county hospital board assumed ownership of the Mexico hospital that week and Sarah Reitz was named as the first county hospital administrator.
Toward the end of January 1919, Charlotte Kunze was conducting general health examinations of children. There were at least nine cases of influenza — all from the same family — in Auxvasse reported Jan. 23, 2019. The father, Fleet Chism, and eight of his children had the virus. His wife had died the previous week.
A health campaign of hand washing, face washing and other hygiene practices was implemented in the school district. Students had to conduct certain practices, such as washing hands before meals, before they could receive certain awards and rankings for hygiene. The advice and practices are similar to what is being encouraged today — frequent hand washing, avoiding touching your face, regularly disinfecting hard surfaces.
By mid-March 1919, the cornerstone of the Audrain County Hospital was laid. The Masonic lodge was in charge of the ceremonial installation. Construction had started November 1918, which was when there was a resurgence of influenza in the U.S. By April 1919, however, reporting and deaths related to flu all but ceased in the Mexico Weekly Ledger.
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