Researchers look to 1918 pandemic to evaluate response to COVID-19

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COVID-19 is a new illness, but public health approaches to handling a pandemic are not.

In 1918, the Great Influenza — commonly known as the Spanish Flu — rocked the world, killing more than 50 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s considered the most severe pandemic in modern history, and the response to the 1918 influenza has informed approaches to contagions ever since. 5 INVESTIGATES spoke with some of Minnesota’s infectious disease experts who are looking back more than 100 years to find solutions for today.

Dr. Rich Danila, the Minnesota Department of Health’s deputy epidemiologist, co-authored a paper that looks at what happened in the Twin Cities during the 1918-19 pandemic.

According to the report, Minnesota’s first cases of influenza were found among soldiers at Fort Snelling who returned from battle in World War I. Danila’s research shows civilian cases in Minneapolis rapidly outnumbered military cases in less than two weeks.

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Back in 1918, Minneapolis and St. Paul’s responses look a lot like the precautions officials are taking in 2020. They shut down public events, sporting events, large gatherings and theaters.

However, the response between the cities was divided.

"In Minneapolis, they did shutdown the schools, but they then reopened and shut down again," Danila said. "St. Paul kind of took a different approach, kind of looked at individual isolation cases, quarantine cases, much like we’re doing right now today."

He says those lessons have helped researchers prepare for future outbreaks and that what we’re seeing with COVID-19 today.

We’re also repeating some of the same mistakes, according to Dr. Mike Osterholm, the director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease, Policy and Research.

Osterholm said fighting World War I abroad kept the U.S. from coordinating health care responses at home. Compare that with what’s happening right now, and the picture looks much the same.

"Right now you’ve got 50 governors and an additional 12-15 mayors who are really serving as the primary national public health experts. They’re the ones driving the action," Osterholm said.

Without a unified national response, it’s difficult for the entire country to be on even footing, Osterholm said.

"I don’t know a state right now that wouldn’t welcome the overall you know support and coordination of the federal government right now," he said. "… We shouldn’t have 50 governors all out there trying to compete like they’re on eBay for this equipment."

Osterholm said he believes we’ve learned from the 1918 pandemic, but one key part that often gets overlooked is the duration.

"One thing that I’m concerned about that we haven’t learned, but I’m sure we will is that the 1918 pandemic lasted almost two years," Osterholm said. "… We’re in the first inning of this game with this one."