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1918 Spanish Flu

This article first appeared as a "Vintage Vineland" column in The Grapevine in 2009, around the time the swine flu occurred.

by Vince Farinaccio

There were no signs yet of panic. Health department authorities agreed that it was best to close all public facilities so as to prevent an outbreak. Hope prevailed, since months earlier the first wave proved to be less dangerous than expected.

What no one at the time knew was that the second strain had mutated, becoming more lethal and changing its target without calculation or concern.

What originally was fatal to juveniles, the elderly and the already ill, now preyed largely on healthy adults in their 20s and 30s.

The above might sound like a scene from a science fiction tale or a worst-case account of the recent swine flu, but it’s actually a description of what Vineland confronted in 1918 as it attempted to fend off the influenza epidemic. The first wave of what is also known as the Spanish Flu had struck the world in March.

The second wave began in August, but it wasn’t until early October that its symptoms surfaced in Vineland. Within three days of shutting down churches, movie theaters and dance halls, the borough witnessed the start of a month-long crisis as the flu took up residency here.

On October 7, the Evening Journal reported that an estimated 500 people had been stricken with the flu in this area. The newspaper attempted to calm residents by reporting that most of the cases were mild and, with proper precautions, would run their course with “little danger.”

Overcrowding at the hospital along with a severely reduced staff who, unlike many of their co-workers, had temporarily managed to stave off the flu, forced Vineland Hospital Association President Frank Mennies to issue a plea for additional nurses. While some women responded, the appeal would continue for the rest of the month.

By October 8, state authorities, who had not yet advised Vineland officials, issued a set of instructions, most of which the borough had already implemented on its own. At the same time, Philadelphia was reporting that its battle with influenza was waning. Whether that was considered a tell-tale sign for this area or just wishful thinking, doctors in Vineland were announcing two days later that the epidemic here had abated. The worst cases, they said, had developed into pneumonia. The Evening Journal also wrote that, according to reports, the borough was faring better than other towns.

The next day, however, the state, realizing the seriousness of the flu’s spread in this area, sent Dr. Hymen Kean, a U. S. Public Health Service assistant surgeon, to Vineland where he met with local physicians and addressed residents at a public meeting. By now, the Evening Journal reported, it was believed that half of Vineland was infected. Stanisics Hall was commandeered for use as an auxiliary hospital and 30 brand new beds belonging to the Training School were transported to the hall. Within two days, all but nine were occupied.

By October 15, it was announced prematurely that the epidemic here had diminished. Shortly after, it was decided that public facilities would not reopen until October 24.

The Vineland epidemic was surrounded by conflicting reports on the number of cases and deaths that occurred here. An October 16 Evening Journal article reported that the results of a Borough Board of Health census indicated the epidemic wasn’t as bad as anticipated.

The census, taken 18 days before the quarantine was lifted, with hospitals emptied and fatalities subsided, revealed that of the 5,083 individuals recorded, 1,052 had been ill, 596 had recovered and six had died, a contradiction of the original report of 10 deaths. But, as the Evening Journal pointed out, the census had failed to include the southwest portion of the borough and any deaths of Landis Township residents treated in Vineland were not part of the tallies.

So, while the borough might have had a lower death count than expected, the figures would be considerably higher if we examined the entire area that is now Vineland. For example, at the Training School, of the 287 cases among the school’s staff and patients, there were 28 deaths.

The ban on public assemblies was extended another week. By November 3, area churches reopened for services and during that week, while the auxiliary hospital closed, dance halls, theaters and pool halls were back in operation.

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