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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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100 years ago in Spokane: Conflicting messages as flu death toll continues

Conflicting headlines showed the contradictory nature of a flu that was in decline while simultaneously claiming fresh lives. (Spokesman-Review archives)
Conflicting headlines showed the contradictory nature of a flu that was in decline while simultaneously claiming fresh lives. (Spokesman-Review archives)

Two contradictory headlines in The Spokesman-Review summed up how difficult it was to face grim reality, yet not create panic, in the depths of the Spanish flu epidemic.

On page six, the headline read, “Flu Situation Slightly Better.” On page seven, the message was, “Epidemic Takes 14 in Day.”

That was the highest one-day flu death toll yet recorded in Spokane. The list of the victims gave a clear picture of the pitiless scope of the epidemic. Most were in the prime of life, in their 20s and 30s. Some were children, ranging from nine months to 15. One was a newborn baby girl, who died just hours before her mother, 32, also succumbed,

Another mother, 33, was survived by her eight small children – “all of whom are ill or but just recovered from influenza.”

The other, slightly more optimistic story noted that the number of new flu cases was 265, slightly down from the same day a week before. There were also slightly fewer cases of pneumonia, the flu complication that was responsible for most of the deaths.

Yet even this story contained plenty of evidence that the city remained in the middle of a full-blown health crisis. The city’s emergency flu hospital, a converted hotel, was jammed full, with more applicants on the waiting list. The crowding was slightly relieved by the fact that three patients died that day.

The shortage of nurses remained critical. Three of the graduate nurses working at the flu hospital were out of action – down with the flu. One home-visit nurse reported that she had cared for 29 patients during the day, a feat made possible by a donated auto.

The health office reported that it had administered 1,000 flu vaccine shots. Officials hoped this would help, although this early form of vaccine would prove to be only marginally effective. The exact nature of the disease and its prevention were still not fully understood.

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