Over the past 100 years, the United States and Michigan have been hit with four influenza pandemics. Of all of these, the 1918 outbreak was the most serious in terms of mortality and the two-year duration of the Michigan pandemic.
The 1918 pandemic had four waves that continued into 1920. The Spanish flu began in the spring of 1918. It seemed to start simultaneously in Europe and the United States. Historians point out that a significant contributor to the outbreak of the virus was that soldiers transported between the U.S and the European fronts lines.
By early Fall, the virus had converted into a much more deadly strain, which developed at several East Coast military bases in September 2018. Here in Michigan, the virus had spread to Camp Custer, an Army base between Kalamazoo and Battle Creek. During WWI, the army based housed almost 40,000 soldiers. Nearly 25% of the soldiers came down with the viral strain.
By the first week of October, Detroit was hit with the outbreak. Between October 1 through the end of November, there were 18,066 cases of Spanish flu in Detroit. A total of 1,688 died from the virus or its associated complications. The final phase hit Detroit between January and February 1919, with another 10,920 cases.
Michigan’s Pandemic News
Throughout Michigan, the 1918 virus pandemic made some notable news.
- Arthur Vandenberg, editor, and publisher of the Grand Rapids Herald and who later become a U.S. senator, was one of that city’s first cases.
- On October 17, 1918 Ann Arbor shut down its schools. It was required that all university faculty and students wear face masks, and local citizens were urged to do the same. It is estimated that some 115 people died in the Ann Arbor area during the pandemic.
- After Detroit closed its schools, it enlisted the help of all its 1,600 teachers to knock on doors looking for influenza victims. In four days over 102,000 households were visited. The teachers found 434 families in need of medical care or assistance.
- The University of Michigan football team was national champions in 1918. While playing only five games, the Wolverines were undefeated. The football schedule was canceled due to the pandemic and wartime travel restrictions.
- Bay City’s health department reported that “in some instances, entire families are sick, and no one will venture into the homes to render assistance.”
- In northwest Michigan, all of Leelanau County was placed in quarantine after a sudden 200 cases appeared in January 1919. Roadblocks had were set up, and people arrested attempting to enter.
- In Bay City, 450 people were quarantined by the Board of Health. Special policemen were assigned to patrol those quarantined. Those caught in the city were charged with violating state law but not jailed. Instead, the violators were returned home.
By the time the virus had ended in April 1919, more than 15,000 people had died in Michigan of either influenza or associated complications such as pneumonia.
The 1918 Outbreak in Michigan
Sources for More Michigan Pandemic Research
- Michigan and the 1918-1919 Influenza Epidemic, The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918: A Digital Encyclopedia
- The Northern Express, The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918
- Ann Arbor Observer, 1918 Flu Epidemic in Ann Arbor – Question Corner
- MLive, Michigan’s deadliest year: Look back at 1918 flu pandemic
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has created pandemic influenza planning checklists
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