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Health, Science, Environment

Can History Help Us Prepare For Potential Second Wave of COVID-19?

Red Cross workers tend to St. Louis pandemic victims in 1918. (Added May 21, 2020)
Missouri Historical Society Collections
Red Cross workers tend to St. Louis pandemic victims in 1918.

As health experts and elected officials plan to further reopen the region’s economy, there is concern over a possible second wave of the coronavirus later this year.

The additional waves of the influenza pandemic more than 100 years ago proved to be more deadly than the first round of the outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there were three waves of the 1918 pandemic, with the second phase being responsible for most of the 675,000 outbreak deaths in the U.S.

Mikall Venso, the Missouri Historical Society military and firearms curator, has spent years studying the 1918 pandemic. He said there are lessons from that outbreak ago that can be applied today.

“Just like they were in 1918 and we are today, we’re sort of hiding from the virus,” he said. “By limiting our exposure and contact with other people, that’s kind of the best approach. The most effective approach.”

Mikall Venso is the Missouri Historical Society's military and firearms curator at Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis.
Credit Tami Goldman
Mikall Venso is the Missouri Historical Society's military and firearms curator at Soldiers Memorial in downtown St. Louis.

The social distancing measures mentioned by Venso went into effect weeks ago in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus. The approach appears to have helped health officials flatten the curve to avoid a huge spike in cases that would have overwhelmed area hospitals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites that method as a key reason the 1918 pandemic slowed and death rates eventually declined.

“So, I think that’s the biggest lesson we can learn from history,” Venso said.

He cautioned that even though there are tremendous parallels with the pandemic a century ago, not all the elements are similar.

“They are two distinctive diseases at two distinctive times and different experiences and circumstances.”

The 1918 influenza outbreak is considered one of the deadliest in history. Medical researchers and historians estimate one-third of the world’s population was infected.

That resulted in 50 million deaths, including 675,000 in the U.S. Nearly 18,000 were reported in Missouri, with approximately 2,800 of them in St. Louis.

Future waves

Even though the first hit of this year’s outbreak is not over, attention is shifting to another potential round of COVID-19, which would follow the course of the 1918 pandemic.

A 1919 cartoon showing the importance of not spreading germs (May 21, 2020).
Credit Missouri Historical Society Collections
A 1919 cartoon showing the importance of not spreading germs.

Some universities around the country are adjusting fall semester schedules to wrap up classes by Thanksgiving, in case the coronavirus rises up again. They hope taking such action will mean any possible return will not be as infectious as this year’s first wave of COVID-19.

Although businesses have reopened, many owners and elected officials are worried about the possibility of a viral rebound. That concern isn’t lost on Venso.

“It’s a balance,” he said. “I don’t envy the public officials that have the difficult challenge of weighing the health concerns and certainly an increasing number of potential deaths with the economic concerns that we are all facing.”

And he added, “I don’t think history offers the perfect solution.”

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