Echoes of Another Pandemic: How The Times Covered the 1918 Flu

Unlike pandemic coverage in the 21st century, The Times did not provide daily reports on the federal response. President Woodrow Wilson never made a statement on influenza, a point some researchers cite as a negligent response.

But “that’s frankly an unnuanced view of what the president would do back then,” Dr. Markel said. “One of the things that remained in the domain of the states and localities is public health. And there was no national public health effort at that time. There was no C.D.C.”

While The Times’s coverage included information about the disease in other cities, most of the reporting revolved around effects of the pandemic in New York and the response from local officials. Dr. Royal S. Copeland, the city’s health commissioner, took center stage.

Under Dr. Copeland, New York’s health department emphasized identification and isolation over closures, mitigating deaths where many other local governments failed. But there were setbacks, and his guidance was a point of contention. The paper reported a public spat between Dr. Copeland and a former health commissioner over the seriousness of the disease. A front-page article on Oct. 5 detailed closures in the city meant to diminish crowds in the subways, and a follow-up the next day reported chaos after a munition plant explosion in Sayreville, N.J., caused further transit disruptions.

“Forced to use the Brooklyn ferries, thousands of persons were caught in a mighty jam on both sides of the river and had to fight their way across,” The Times reported. “Thus was created an aggravation of the very condition that Health Commissioner Copeland sought to remedy.”

The Times also covered his hopes for a vaccine, which he argued was further along than the surgeon general would admit. Dr. Blue was right to show restraint; the science of the time was fundamentally flawed, and an effective vaccine was not developed during the pandemic.

As cases declined in November (they would spike again in the winter, but New York’s epidemic was over), The Times interviewed Dr. Copeland to reflect about lessons learned for the next time an epidemic struck. He attributed the city’s success to decisions that included keeping schools open while closing small, crowded entertainment venues. But he emphasized the importance of allowing life to go on when safely possible.

“I attempted to maintain the morale of New York City,” he said.

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