More than a century ago, the Baltimore region was dealing with a different, lethal pandemic, as it began to hit area military bases this week in 1918 before ravaging the city.
After more than six months of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, the virus has spread much farther in Baltimore than 1918 influenza had after six or seven months, with more than 15,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in Baltimore City. As of Sept. 19, 1918, health officials in Baltimore said they didn’t fear a virus outbreak. The pandemic was misnamed the “Spanish Flu” at the time. The suspected ground zero of the 1918 flu outbreak ranges from Kansas to China. But it was clear to U.S. officials even in 1918 that it didn’t start in Spain.
Other cities had been ravaged by the flu, but Baltimore didn’t seem destined to become one, the city’s health commissioner, Dr. John D. Blake, said at the time. There weren’t any known cases in the city.
“There is no special reason that I know of to fear an outbreak of this disease in our city,” Blake told The Baltimore Sun.
Just a few days later, the tables turned.
On Sept. 23, 1918, soldiers at Camp Meade in Anne Arundel County came down with the flu. They were believed to have contracted the disease while off base. The solutions implemented back then were similar to some of the state’s initial reactions to the coronavirus; those showing any symptoms would be isolated immediately, but the camp didn’t ban visitors or shut down large gatherings.
One day later, the camp had more than 500 reported cases, forcing officials to close its theater and auditorium, each of which held more than 2,000 people. Nurses also began to fall victim to the disease, but no immediate quarantine order was put in place. There was some optimism, however, that the camp could stem the tide if the weather conditions continued to improve.
“While the situation is an extremely disagreeable one it is by no means alarming,” wrote Baltimore Sun correspondent Vincent De P. Fitzpatrick.
By the next day, Sept. 25, cases doubled to more than 1,000 and the camp instituted a quarantine, banning visitors. Nationwide, there were nearly 30,000 cases of the flu in Army bases by Sept. 26, including more than 500 deaths. The Baltimore Red Cross called for volunteers to make masks for soldiers at camps around Baltimore.
Baltimore’s health department still remained optimistic that there wouldn’t be a “serious outbreak” of the flu among the civilian population. It was no more dangerous than an ordinary flu, officials claimed, and cases at military camps were growing “slowly.”
The data didn’t seem to back that claim.
The cases at Camp Meade had ballooned to 1,900 by Sept. 27. There were also outbreaks with more than 1,100 cases at Edgewood, about 300 cases at Fort McHenry and more at Baltimore’s Camp Holabird.
By Sept. 29, Dr. C. Hampson Jones, chief of Maryland’s state board of health, said the flu was spreading throughout Baltimore and the state, and he urged residents to take precautions. The next day, local hospitals were at capacity with patients suffering from severe pneumonia due to the flu, forcing them to turn away patients just days later.
By Oct. 3, the city reported 440 cases of the flu and eight deaths. Blake initially opted against large-scale restrictions on businesses, schools and gatherings.
“Drastic measures will not stop influenza or any contagious disease,” Blake said in the Oct. 6 morning edition of The Sun. “They only ex[c]ite people, throw them into a nervous state and lower their resistance to the disease.”
On Oct. 8, Baltimore County schools closed at the direction of the county, and the Catholic Church suspended some of its Masses. By Oct. 9, Blake changed course and ordered stores to open no earlier than 9:30 a.m. and close no later than 4:30 p.m. and recommended food service workers and hospital attendants wear masks.
There were 85 reported deaths and 1,525 new cases in the city in a 24-hour period around when Blake issued the order. Blake later banned public gatherings and ordered churches to close on Oct. 13.
By Oct. 11, nearly 7,000 had died in the Army camps from the flu, close to the number that died in a year of battle in World War I.
About 10 days after churches closed, cases dipped significantly, leading Blake to believe the city was getting through the flu. By Oct. 27, Blake reopened churches for all services, save for funerals. By Nov. 1, Blake reopened schools and eased nearly all other restrictions due to declining cases, at which point more than 3,000 Baltimoreans had died from the flu.
Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell and the Associated Press contributed to this article.