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2020 pandemic in Morgantown closely resembles 1918 pandemic in Morgantown

Red Cross nurses in Morgantown during the Spanish flu.

Written by Michael Carvelli
Photographs provided by WVU Libraries/West Virginia and Regional History Center

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A little more than 100 years after the Spanish flu infected nearly a quarter of the world’s population, much of the planet sits at a standstill amid another pandemic attacking humanity. There are currently more than a million cases of the novel coronavirus — resulting in more than 80,000 deaths and causing life to grind to a halt in many countries, including most of the United States, as stay-home orders try to flatten the curve and slow down the spread of the pandemic.

While it wouldn’t be difficult to make a long list of what’s different in Morgantown and at West Virginia University from now and back in 1918, the message and the response to the two global pandemics are strikingly similar.

“It’s amazing when you look back at clips from newspapers back then and read about it knowing this situation right now and seeing it really happening again and living through it as we are,” said John Cuthbert, curator and director of the West Virginia Regional History Center and Special Collections at WVU Libraries.

“When you lay out the way that both of these pandemics spread all over the world and you look at the responses, you don't expect two things that happened this far apart to have many similarities, but you can definitely see it when you look at how things are going and what we’re doing to try to keep slowing down how much it spreads.”

Morgantown along the river circa 1918.
Morgantown around the time of 1918 when the town population numbered about 10,000.

Before the Spanish flu hit Morgantown, many factors had already turned 1918 into an anomaly for WVU. 

A year earlier, the United States had entered World War I, causing a drop of close to 50 percent in enrollment as many students were serving in the military.

By the start of fall 1918, it was becoming clear that the flu pandemic was going to be significant. Early in October, the decision was made to begin shutting down schools and businesses — very much like what began happening in March.

“WVU shut down, Morgantown shut down everything including school and churches. No gatherings of groups of people were permitted,” Cuthbert said. “They didn't use the term social distancing like we do today, but that was basically the major thing they were stressing to people.”

Over the course of the next five weeks, there were more than 2,000 flu cases recorded in Morgantown.

Of the WVU students who remained on campus during wartime, between 500 and 600 of them were in military training on campus, and of those students in the Army Training Corps, more than half would eventually get the flu leading WVU to turn the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house into a medical facility.

The Delta Tau Delta house in 1918 was used to house patients.
Delta Tau Delta fraternity house, circa 1918. 

Cuthbert said 31 WVU students died as a result of the flu initially — although it was unclear how many of those students were in Morgantown when they caught the flu and how many were away from campus. There were 45 deaths in Morgantown during that stretch from October to early November. At least several more students died in the following weeks.

“At most there were maybe 10,000 people living in Morgantown at the time, so by the time this was all said and done, and thinking about the numbers on a larger scale than just that five-week period, you're looking at about a quarter of our population [infected] in Morgantown,” Cuthbert said. “That's just a staggering thing to think about.”

On Nov. 9, an announcement was made that the ban was lifted and schools and businesses could be open again on Nov. 11. Since that was a holiday for Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I, schools opened the following day, Nov. 12.

Armistice Day parade after World War I in Morgantown.
Troops march during the Armistice Parade in Morgantown on Nov. 11, 1918. The parade happened the day the ban limiting public gatherings was lifted.

While they lifted the ban and people were allowed to go back to school and work as well as do leisure activities like go to the theater or billiard parlors again, officials like Morgantown’s City Health Officer W.C. Kelley stressed the importance of continuing to be cautious to make sure the flu didn’t get a chance to continue to spread.

A major concern at the time was that even with the pandemic controlled, pneumonia and tuberculosis could become more prevalent if more people continued to get the flu as winter approached.

“Guard and protect yourselves by using all precautions against the disease that has resulted in such havoc among us,” Kelley said in the Morgantown Post. “While the ban has been lifted, it is sincerely hoped that the people will not allow themselves to become careless or indifferent to the necessary sanitary measures not only protecting themselves against the influenza but also against other contagious diseases.” 

Cuthbert remarked that our memories seem to be shorter than 100 years. The tactics that Kelley described were new again. “It’s incredible how little we have learned in responding to such epidemics over the last century,” he said.

But knowing the impact the Spanish flu had on the world and seeing the way this pandemic has spread so quickly helps put things into perspective, Cuthbert said.

“This is certainly a time that we’re all going to be remembering for the rest of our lives,” Cuthbert said. “It’s hard to believe at times, for sure. As you are experiencing something like this and you see the impact it’s having and just how much it’s sweeping through everywhere in the world, you realize just how fragile everything is. It’s a reminder to appreciate each moment we get.”

The south end of Woodburn Hall, circa 1918.
The south end of Woodburn Hall, circa 1918.