Patients were dying from a mysterious virus, and health care workers were in short supply. Museums, schools, and restaurants abruptly closed. Large gatherings were banned in public places. People debated the effectiveness of masks and questioned whether wearing them could help stop the deadly outbreak.
Those were just some of the issues that Calvin Coolidge had to deal with during the flu pandemic of 1918, and they will be the focus of a webinar hosted Monday by the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation.
The foundation, which is based in Coolidge’s birthplace of Plymouth Notch, Vt., is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the man who served as governor of Massachusetts before becoming the 30th president of the United States.
Jared Rhoads, the debate program director at the Coolidge Foundation, will lead the discussion and talk about the role Coolidge played during the flu outbreak in the late summer of 1918, when he was serving as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Coolidge’s political star was on the rise. He was elected governor that fall and took office in January 1919.
The discussion will focus on how Coolidge and other state leaders responded and what steps they took to alleviate the public health crisis that would ultimately claim the lives of more than 600,000 people in the United States. Some of the strategies and policies weren’t much different than the ones being used today to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, Rhoads noted in a phone interview Thursday.
The earliest known cases of the so-called Spanish flu in Boston were documented in August 1918 when several sailors on Commonwealth Pier suddenly became ill. The virus was very contagious and proved to be lethal.
In an effort to curb its spread, public officials in Massachusetts shut down all sorts of establishments and gathering places.
“They closed the MFA, the Boston Public Library, schools, bars, barber shops, theaters," Rhoads said. “You name it, it was closed down.”
Even back then, there was an understanding of how the disease could spread, he said.
“Back then they would have fines against coughing and spitting and kissing in public, and being a ‘big talker,’ ” which was a term used to describe someone who talked loudly. “I love that phrase,” Rhoads said. “These were all things that were not allowed.”
But unlike today, people in Massachusetts weren’t required to wear masks during the 1918 outbreak.
“They weren’t even strongly promoted,” Rhoads said. “There was a pretty lively debate about them, though. They were basically having the same debate we’re having today. If you wear [a mask] well and properly, it provides a benefit to others. But so many people don’t. They were wrestling with that issue back then, too.”
The decision to close businesses — and when to reopen them — was also handled differently in 1918. While today’s policymakers have provided tentative timelines for how long closures will last, that wasn’t the case in Coolidge’s day, Rhoads said.
“It’s noticeable the closures weren’t dated back then,” he said. “They did close down pretty quickly, but they didn’t have to close for very long.”
At some point, schools, businesses, and public buildings had to reopen, he said.
“They reopened in Boston when deaths fell below 100 for the second time in the three days,” he said.
Many sailors and soldiers — young men who had otherwise been healthy — who got sick with the flu that autumn quickly died.
“It hit young adults harder — not so much kids, and not so much elderly,” he said. “Camp Devens was massively hit.”
Rhoads said the speed at which that lethal strain of influenza killed so many young men also prevented it from spreading further.
“When something kills that quickly, it prevents that person from infecting other people,” he said.
It’s also important to keep in mind that 1918 was a different world than the one we live in today. Back then, cases were reported to public health officials over the telephone or by US mail. “You could call in cases,” he said. “Or mail in reports of cases.”
Today, thanks to modern-day air travel, a few infected people can board different planes and bring a virus to cities across the globe in a matter of hours. “That’s something that doesn’t work in our favor,” he said.
But advances in medical care and technology also have come a long way over the past century.
“Information can travel faster, too,” and public health officials can now get up-to-date data with the push of a button, he said. “We’re not mailing reports of cases anymore.”
Rhoads’s online discussion about the 1918 flu pandemic is scheduled to start at noon Monday. After his presentation, he’ll be available to answer questions from the audience.
Anyone who would like to participate should e-mail C.C. Borzilleri (email@example.com) to receive the log-in information for the webinar.