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Virginia

On September 11th, several sailors in Norfolk reported ill with influenza. At that time, state officials saw no cause for concern and it was not until nearly two weeks later that officials filed their first report with the Public Health Service. According to that report, influenza had now spread across the state. Petersburg, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Pittsylvania and a variety of other places were all now reporting cases of severe influenza. On October 4th, officials formally stated that influenza was “epidemic in many parts of the State.” Four days later, the disease was so pervasive that authorities closed the State Fair. And on October 15th, officials estimated "that there were at least 200,000 cases in the State." Because state officials were often overwhelmed and unable to track the epidemic effectively, the actual number of cases was probably much higher.

By October 26th, the situation had shifted and authorities began to be more optimistic, noting that "the situation was gradually improving." Certainly, the peak of the epidemic had passed.

A long view of the buildings along Main St. in Richmond Virginia, with two trolley cars, a horse-drawn carriage and the American National Bank visible in the distance.  
c1905. A view of Main St. in Richmond Virginia. Following the onset of the pandemic, state authorities banned public gatherings at churches, schools, and other places that might further spread the illness. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

In Richmond, Dr. Bernard Reams soaked the legs and feet of flu victims in scalding water, and then swaddled his patients in blankets until they were red and sweating. This approach, which reflected outdated theories of medicine, probably indicates that Reams was an elderly practitioner who had been pressed into duty during the pandemic. It is possible, however, that Reams was so desperate to provide his patients with a cure that he was willing to try practices and theories which had fallen out of favor long ago.

Richmond city officials banned public gatherings, including weekend parties, church services and other events. The John Marshall High School became an emergency hospital. Lawrence Price was appointed Director of Emergency Influenza Work in Richmond. In an ironic twist of fate, Price became ill with influenza in mid-October; unlike many of the state's residents, however, Price ultimately recovered.

In Alexandria, the town's two doctors visited hundreds of patients a day, dispensing their own treatment which consisted of atropine capsules (belladonna) and whiskey. The treatment failed to cure anyone.

Two Public Health Service doctors were sent to Newport News to care for influenza patients. Within two days of their arrival, one was ill in bed with the flu. There was no available codeine and bedding ran short. Troop movements also meant that sailors and soldiers with the disease were constantly being brought into the state. On September 26th, 239 men from the 328th Labor Battalion boarded a train headed for Newport News. They arrived in Virginia on the 29th. By that time, almost half of the battalion had developed influenza. Within less than a day after their arrival in Virginia, almost three-quarters of the battalion was suffering from influenza.

In Max Meadows, the wife of sharecropper John Brinkley and his four children were ill with influenza. Believing that "a little fresh air could be fatal," Brinkley sealed his family in the living room around a fire in a wood stove. For seven days the family remained in the room with the fire. On the eighth day, the house caught fire. Brinkley despaired when he was forced to evacuate his family, believing that the fresh air would kill them. But his family fully recovered.

A black and white panoramic view of ships and buildings along the coast in Newport News, Virginia.  
c1915. A panoramic view of Newport News, Virginia. Newport News was at greater risk during the pandemic as a result of the frequent movement of sailors and soldiers through its ports in wartime. [Credit: The Library of Congress]

On March 1st, 1919, the State Health Commissioner of Virginia sent a letter to the Surgeon General, stating that “In Fairfax County, Virginia there is a shortage of doctors and still some influenza. Dr. J.F. Davis went there to help out in the situation as Assistant Surgeon of the PHS, receiving pay from your office. This arrangement was discontinued on the 15th of February. Dr. Davis would like to stay there, but cannot get a Virginia license until the Board of Medical Examiners meets in June. As an officer of the Public Health Service, he can practice in Virginia, therefore I would be obliged in, in order to meet this emergency, if you would appoint Dr. J.F. Davis Assistant Surgeon at the rate of one dollar a year. He will receive from the people compensation for the services that he renders.” The Surgeon General responded saying “I have the honor to recommend the appointment of Dr. J.F. Davis as an acting assistant surgeon in the PHS with compensation of $1 per annum, in order that he may continue to render relief in epidemic work in Virginia and receive from the local community for his services.

During the summer of 1919, influenza had begun to disappear from the state. State officials still worried, however, that the disease would return. In the fall of 1919, the Virginia State Board of Health released the following statement. It was published throughout the state.

"State-Wide Campaign for the Prevention of Influenza: Richmond, Va.,

October 9-- With a field force numbering ten or twelve, the State Board of Health and the State Tuberculosis Association are driving hard to launch in the hundred counties of Virginia a campaign for the prevention of the influenza epidemic which swept Virginia last year, claiming a death toll of 15,678.

A year ago last September there were 19,500 cases of influenza reported by physicians, besides a great number that were probably not seen by physicians or otherwise recorded.

During the twelve months ending September 1, 1919, there were 139,000 cases reported, with a total of 15,678 deaths. Of the death toll, about 4,700 were of persons between the ages of twenty to thirty, in the very prime of young manhood and womanhood.

To prevent the recurrence of the tragic story of last year, a determined effort is being made to organize the forces of the state in a great campaign for prevention."

Much to the relief of state officials, the influenza season of 1919-1920 proved to be significantly milder than that of 1918-1919.

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