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A tale of two different, but not totally dissimilar, worldwide pandemics

Dean Shalhoup

Longtime reporter, columnist and photographer, is back doing what he does best ñ chronicling the people and history of Nashua. Reaching 40 years with The Telegraph in September, Deanís insights have a large, appreciative following.

Our very first inkling that this thing they call “coronavirus” – a name that at first prompted plenty of attempts at humor, especially among beer drinkers – might present a problem for us Americans came in mid-January with news dispatches from the West Coast.

A handful of people, first in Washington state, then Oregon and California, had come down with a mysterious virus whose symptoms mimicked in many ways those of a bad cold or flu.

When the first death was reported on Feb. 29, we began paying a little more attention, even way over here on the East Coast. When more deaths followed, hitting 11 in the first days of March, we paid more attention.

And, naturally, we were growing ever more concerned: If coronavirus – aka COVID-19 – can spread so rapidly from China and Italy to the West Coast, it can surely make it way east in no time flat.

But what if we picked up a local newspaper and in scanning the front page were stopped in our tracks by a headline announcing the death – from symptoms of an emerging worldwide pandemic – of a 28-year-old Milford man?

How, not long after learning of the death, would we handle news that 20 sailors stationed at Camp Devens – which lies in Ayer and Shirley, Massachusetts, just a half-hour from the N.H. border – had also died of the virus?

And goodness, what would we have done if we picked up a copy of The Telegraph to learn that the virus had reached epidemic proportions right here in Nashua?

It’s difficult to even imagine what it would be like to see in each day’s newspaper a list of local folks – sometimes containing one or two names, sometimes with six or eight – who died over the previous 24 hours of this same virus.

While we can only wonder, millions of folks who have since gone before us didn’t need to imagine what it was like: They experienced it up close and personal at the hands of the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.

Today, as we keep abreast of developments on the COVID-19 front, our confidence in a century of medical advances, research, education and training leaves us quite optimistic that the current pandemic will never come anywhere close to wreaking the kind of havoc that America experienced 102 years ago.

By the numbers, according to a well-researched article by Michael Graham, politics editor at the New Hampshire Journal who shared the article on www.insidesources.com, the Spanish Flu pandemic killed more than 675,000 Americans, including 2,500 in New Hampshire.

At one point, Graham wrote, Manchester recorded 41 flu deaths in 41 hours.

Compare that to COVID-19 outbreak. As of yesterday, there were seven confirmed cases in New Hampshire, with zero deaths – the latter a number we all hope doesn’t change.

But that certainly doesn’t mean COVID-19 doesn’t present much of a threat in these parts, nor should it be ignored. The comparison, Graham notes, simply puts in perspective today’s sense of public panic.

(Think empty supermarket shelves where hand-sanitizer and toilet paper were once displayed. Those pre-snowstorm rushes are nothing compared to this).

It was at Fort Devens, then named Camp Devens, a U.S. Army training camp hastily built upon America’s entry into World War I, where the nation’s deadliest flu outbreak originated, according to Graham.

“As some 800 young, healthy soldiers died in a matter of weeks, the U.S. Surgeon General sent a group of doctors to the base to issue a report. What they found was horrifying,” Graham wrote.

Dead bodies were stacked “‘about the morgue like cordwood,’ one doctor reported. Another said, ‘this must be some kind of new infection – or plague.'”

Nearly 150 victims fell ill on the U.S.S. Frederick in the Portsmouth naval shipyard. Soon the Spanish Flu was spreading across the entire state.

Not surprisingly, the outbreaks overwhelmed doctors, nurses, hospitals and the state’s entire healthcare system.

Derry’s only public health nurse quit after the town refused to pay her, according to Graham’s story. But it did take action by “shutting down the movie theater, local clubs and pool halls; canceling school sporting events; and public postings urging citizens to be ‘sanitary, avoid talking, whistling or breathing into anyone’s face, don’t spit on sidewalks and avoid crowds.'”

In Nashua, according to research I did a couple of years ago, the 1918 flu claimed the life of Dr. Dennis Shea, 46, who “died in the service of humanity” tirelessly treating patients despite the danger of exposure.

“Beloved priest” Father Francis A. Mulvanity of St. Patrick Church was barely 30 when he died. Philip Nathan Barker, 18 and a Merchant Marine, died at his Nashua home. Private Frank Kilduff, who lived in Milford and Brookline and was a letter carrier, died at 36 of the flu.

Another private, Oliver Pombrio, who lived on Bridle Path in Nashua, was another casualty.

Seventeen-year-old Theodore Wadleigh, a member of the family for whom Milford’s public library is named, was a freshman at Dartmouth, where he fell ill but recovered enough to return to his studies – then contracted pneumonia and died.

Word was received of the deaths of Eugene T. Colburn, who was close to 70 when he died at his Fairmount Street home.

Anna S. Colburn, no direct relation, a “well-known Nashua woman,” died at her Concord Street home the same day.

The flu also claimed the life of Ward 9 Nashua Alderman Wilfrid Lagasse, who was 29.

“Well known and popular young man” Perley O. Downey of Nashua was 24 when the flu took his life, leaving a young widow and toddler daughter behind.

Navy paymaster Walter L. Merrill of Hudson died while stationed at New York Harbor on the U.S.S. Dorothy Bradford; he’d just returned to duty from a furlough with family.

Meanwhile, Graham wrote, “one reason the 1918 outbreak was so frightening is that it killed quickly and the victims tended to be young and heathy. Today, while the actual mortality rate of the virus is still unknown, the best evidence is that its victims tend to be older.

According to a World Health Organization report, the mortality rate for coronavirus patients under the age of 50 is less than 0.4 percent. For those over the age of 70, it’s eight percent. Over 80, the mortality rate approaches 15 percent. That’s very different from the Spanish Flu experience.

And while it’s theoretically possible that the sheer volume of flu patients would overwhelm our healthcare system today, it’s far larger and more robust than the ‘one nurse per town’ system in New Hampshire 100 years ago. And there are far more medicines widely available over the counter to treat symptoms at home – which is how the vast majority of people will deal with it.”

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He may be reached at 594-1256 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com.

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