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Washington

Public health experts in Washington officially reported the presence of influenza on September 27th, saying “a number of cases have been reported in the vicinity of American Lake.” Influenza had actually appeared in the state earlier.

On September 17th, recruits from Philadelphia arrived at the Puget Sound Naval Yard; eleven of these recruits were ill with influenza. By September 20th, Camp Lewis had 173 cases of influenza. On September 23rd, 10,000 people gathered to witness a review of the state’s National Guard Infantry. While the camp’s medical officer acknowledged that the camp was suffering from a minor epidemic of influenza, he insisted that there was no need to worry. In doing so, he made a serious miscalculation as the disease spread outward from the camp into the surrounding areas. By September 25th, influenza had already reached epidemic proportions in Seattle (although the city did not officially report the disease as epidemic until much later).

In late September, worried state officials asked the Public Health Service if they should impose an intrastate quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease. Believing that a quarantine would have little effect, the Public Health Service cautioned against imposing a quarantine.

A black and white image of a row of policemen in uniform wearing white masks.
Policemen in Seattle wore masks in the belief that these would protect them from influenza. The masks provided no real protection. c. 1918.

By the week of October 11th, schools were closed across the state and public gatherings prohibited at Seattle, Bremerton, Pasco, Prosser, Sultan and Port Angeles. The closing of schools failed to slow the spread of the pandemic, especially in cities such as Bremerton which already had 1,000 cases of influenza.

By the third week of October, the state was forced to admit openly what they had long known: “the disease is epidemic at Seattle and Spokane.” State officials did, however, note that “Tacoma says that the situation there is not critical.” This was the only bright spot as the Public Health Service noted grimly that “cases of the disease are reported as occurring throughout the State.”

In Seattle, the old City Hall and one of the dormitories at the University of Washington became emergency hospitals. City residents were forbidden to gather, even for religious purposes. When ministers complained, the overwhelmed mayor replied “Religion which won’t keep for two weeks is not worth having.”

On October 29th, the wearing of masks became mandatory in Seattle. One day later, state legislators made the wearing of masks mandatory across the state. Enforcing this law proved difficult and people often removed the masks, most dramatically when they gathered to celebrate Armistice Day. Although officials did not know this, the masks that were implemented in this era did little to prevent the spread of influenza.

Influenza rates began to wane during late November. However, the disease continued to be a serious threat throughout the winter. In late December, a PHS officer informed the Surgeon General that men at various military camps in the state were still “coming down with influenza,” necessitating that they remain at these camps throughout January. Across the state, concerns regarding influenza remained high and officials cautioned against re-opening schools before January and March.

Influenza peaked in the fall of 1918 but it remained prevalent throughout the state during the winter and spring of 1919.

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