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Pandemics: Then and Now
In 1918, an influenza pandemic then known as the “Spanish flu” ravaged our city. Nearly a century later, some things have remained the same—including Worcester’s population of approximately 180,000—while others have changed. Advances in technology and society now guide Worcester’s response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in unprecedented ways. And so, as we explore the similarities and differences of our city’s response to these two global pandemics, we also look to the future of improving the social infrastructures within our country.
Saint Vincent Hospital
Few institutions felt the weight of these global pandemics as much as local hospitals did. While public health and modern medicine have come a long way since 1918, these establishments and their healthcare workers—including Worcester’s Saint Vincent Hospital which operated during both outbreaks—had the crucial responsibility of treating and caring for the ill. However, in their respective times, Worcester’s hospitals were disproportionately serving different demographics. Unlike COVID-19, which is most fatal to the elderly and the immunocompromised, the 1918 flu was deadliest to healthy young adults, as 20–30 years old made up 50% of those killed by the 1918 influenza.
Both pandemics would push Worcester’s healthcare systems to their limits. Local hospitals soon found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients needing treatment. In 1918, the exhibition and dance hall of the New England Fairgrounds in Greendale—which was the site of Worcester’s annual harvest festival—was converted into an emergency field hospital. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in April, Worcester’s own DCU Center would serve the same purpose until the summer once cases declined to a level manageable by local hospitals. However, by December 6, 2020, the state again established a field hospital at the DCU Center to address rising cases amidst a deadly winter surge.
In order to retain a sense of normalcy amidst the 1918 pandemic, Worcester’s mayor, Pehr Gustaf Holmes, insisted that public schools remain open in spite of escalating infection rates and against the wishes of many teachers and parents. As such, principals took it upon themselves to order school closures via an old school board rule that allowed teachers to dismiss class when room temperatures dropped below 60℉. In response, the mayor instructed janitors to fill school furnaces prior to their usual lighting on December 1st. And although schools remained open, female school teachers were still urged to volunteer as emergency nurses, despite having no prior training or experience.
In 2020, Worcester’s public schools also remained open during the pandemic, but with one crucial difference: 100% remote learning. As a compromise between quality education and the risk of transmission via the city’s public school systems, teachers and students alike continue to learn how to navigate an online academic environment in the era of COVID-19.
Although schools remained open in 1918, many other public functions, including church services, were cancelled. 2020 likewise saw the cancellation of many in-person events, but with an increasing number of virtual alternatives, like these remote church services, allowing participants to stay connected with their communities from afar during a time of extreme isolation.
Call for Masks
The importance of face masks and shields to reduce the spread of viruses cannot be understated for either pandemic. How our community comes together to address mask shortages during these times of crisis is equally important. In 1918, women from the Red Cross made and delivered 3,250 hand-sewn masks to Worcester nurses at Camp Devens. In 2020, Worcester’s Technocopia Makerspace and the Worcester Center for Crafts would fulfill a similar role by creating PPE face shields for our city’s frontline healthcare workers during a dire shortage. Other initiatives, like the Worcester Stitchers for Health started by a group of volunteers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute, stitched and delivered homemade surgical masks to the broader community.
Facemasks produced by the Worcester Stitchers for Health, 2020
When does a global pandemic end? On October 21, 1918—a mere 32 days after the city’s first death—Worcester officials declared that the “battle against the epidemic [was] won,” and the Board of Health lifted all restrictions on public gatherings. The decision to do so was controversial to say the least, and that winter, a second surge of influenza would claim more lives—although fewer died than in the first wave.
COVID-19 has been a different story. As of December, 2020, the surge in cases this winter rivals the initial spike in cases when the pandemic first started back in March and April. As a result, our city has had to revert back to prior phases of the state’s reopening plan after being designated as a high-risk zone once again in early October. And after eight months of stay-at-home orders, everyone's itching for things to return to normal.
The 1918 flu ultimately claimed the lives of 50 million people worldwide. As of November 23rd, 2020, there have been 58.6 million cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus—1.39 million resulted in death. While our city has come far in only one hundred years, we must look to the past and work in the present to improve our community’s ability to address such crises like the COVID-19 pandemic.