It is estimated by the Centers for Disease Control that the Spanish Influenza pandemic of 1918 infected roughly one-third of the world's population and killed 50 million worldwide, which begs the question: How did La Junta deal with this global pandemic?
By looking through the La Junta Daily Democrat published in 1918, this article and the articles to follow will attempt to answer this question. So, let's take a trip to the Sept. 27, 1918, edition of the Democrat where before dominating future headlines this virus was first mentioned.
By September, 1918 the United States had been an active participant in World War I for nearly a year and half. Provost Marshal John Evans made an announcement in the La Junta paper informing the public that the recent draft call which saw 18 men from Otero County drafted had been canceled. This was due to reports of 6,139 new cases of influenza in army camps across the country popping up in just 24 hours. They also reported 70 new deaths due to pneumonia and 723 new cases of pneumonia in the camps.
During this time the people of La Junta were gearing up for a circus at the Sells-Floto show grounds. Where on the opening day of the show, a man referred to as either “colored man” or by his last name, Smith, stabbed a local by the name of Jack Gillis in the arm and the chest.
Gillis would be transported to the hospital where he was treated for his wounds and released. Smith would go on to be jailed and charged with assault to murder. His bond was set at $1,000.
Smith would later be removed from the jail on Oct. 4 after developing a severe case of pneumonia. While not mentioned as the first case of influenza in the city, his condition mirrored that of those who suffered from the Spanish Flu.
Smith would go on to be hospitalized for four weeks before his condition improved enough for Sheriff Gay Ecton to make the decision to move him back to the jail. However, during this process Smith escaped from his cot at the hospital at 9 p.m. in only a bathrobe to never be seen again, according to the archives.
The next mention of the influenza wouldn’t come until the Oct. 5 edition of the Democrat when an article titled “Are we guarding the health of La Junta?” was published. In this article the writer noted that outbreaks were becoming serious in larger cities in the state including Pueblo and Colorado Springs.
In Pueblo they said that there were eight known cases of the flu and that their health officials had taken drastic measures to prevent the spread. Including closing all churches, schools, theaters, dance halls, pool halls and other gatherings.
At the time of publication they noted that La Junta had no health officer and that one would be appointed immediately. They also noted that there were several germ breeding places in the city that must be taken care of including a filthy ditch in front of Park School and the old eye sore at Santa Fe depot.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The health of a community is the most valuable asset we have and the city officials are the people to see that it is preserved. What are you going to do about it? Are we going to let it ride until it is too late, or are we going to see that someone in authority acts?” The author of the article posed to the community.
Two days later the city would close schools. Not to prevent the spread of disease, but instead to see a war exhibit. In what the paper called the largest crowd the city has ever seen people from across Otero County and the surrounding counties gathered to see this exhibit.
The next day Dr. A. S. Brunk was elected health officer of La Junta and it was reported that an epidemic of Influenza existed in the city in a mild form. The closing of all places of public gatherings was discussed at this meeting, however, city officials decided to with-hold this decision for the time being.
On Oct. 9, concerned citizens asked officials why they didn’t close all places of public gathering after Lamar and Rocky Ford made that decision. This prompted another city council meeting where public officials would decide to fall in line with other towns across the state.
The situation in the city would remain the same two days later and Dr. Brunk gave “common sense” rules on how to prevent the spread of disease. Two of which were to smother a cough and sneeze with a handkerchief and when shopping to not remain in the store any longer than is positively necessary.
By following these guidelines La Junta seemingly curbed the spread of the disease and on Oct. 14, there were no new deaths in a couple of days, and no new cases had occurred in the town in the span of 24 hours.
On October 16, the situation still was reported by Dr. Brunk as staying the same, however, the paper questioned if everything was being done to prevent the spread. They would go on to say that in other cities in the state more preventative measures were being taken such as placarding houses in Denver and flushing the streets with water every night in Pueblo.
It was also mentioned that many local businessmen in La Junta were against placarding because it could hurt their business. The author argued that while it may hurt business today, if the epidemic grows business would only be hurt more.
As the month moved along, hopes of ending the closing ban due to the situation in the city staying the same remained. That hope, however, would be crushed as the situation in surrounding towns such as Swink, Rocky Ford and Las Animas worsened day by day.
In fact the spread of the flu was so prevalent in Swink that they turned their city hall into a hospital for the white people and the christian church into a hospital for people of color. The new cases at City Hospital in La Junta were mostly from soldiers who were on troop trains that passed through town.
It was reported that more than a dozen were being treated at the hospital and the paper encouraged citizens to take them out for a ride around town when they were released. At the end of the month it was also reported that whiskey was potentially good for treating the influenza.
At least that was the notion shared by many individuals in La Junta, because according to county clerk J. B. Morehead, the dispenser of liquor permits for Otero, he had issued 400 permits for the month. Which at the time was the largest number of liquor permits from the local office in any one month since the prohibition law went into effect.
Whilst the flu ravaged cities and towns around La Junta, things looked on the up for the city. For the most part the flu was mild and deaths were considerably lower than that of other parts of the state. Still the worst was yet to come and over the course of the next three months the decisions made by city officials and people would prove to be costly.
Today we sit in a similar spot as most of our predecessors did in September of 1918, with low cases of a disease that is currently striking our state. So, in the spirit of the author who came before me I’d like to posit the same question to you with few edits.
Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The health of a community is the most valuable asset we have and the city, state and federal officials are the people to see that it is preserved. What are you going to do about it? Are we going to let it ride until it is too late, or are we going to see that those in authority will continue to act accordingly?