On Oct. 7, 1918, the concerned father of a UNC student wrote a letter to University President Edward Kidder Graham. He wanted Graham to notify him if his son got infected by a strain of influenza — the Spanish flu.
“Should our son John come down with influenza,” wrote the parent, “and his condition in any sense be serious, please notify of same (sic) by wire at my expense.”
The 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed between 20 to 50 million people worldwide, is considered one of the deadliest epidemics in human history.
While the virus was relatively mild during the spring of 1918, in the fall a deadlier second wave began. By September, it spread to North Carolina.
“There are thirty cases in the hospital,” Graham wrote back to the parent on Oct. 19. “This shows a steady decrease from the maximum of about one hundred and thirty. There are twenty in the convalescent building. These men are virtually well; they are simply being detained there as a precaution.”
The campus was quarantined in October, but just two days after sending the letter, Graham himself fell ill, according to a blog post from University Archives. As was typical for those infected during this second wave, he developed pneumonia as a secondary infection — and died in less than a week.
All classes and military drills were canceled the following day out of respect for the president, according to the archive post.
On Oct. 31, Marvin Stacy assumed leadership of the University. Three months later, however, Stacy also became infected with the flu, and died of pneumonia like his predecessor, according to University Archives. When the pandemic finally began to wane in the spring of 1919, over 500 UNC students had been treated in the infirmary and seven had died as a result of complications with the illness.
The University is now facing another public health threat — the spread of COVID-19, known as the novel coronavirus. In response, UNC has implemented cautionary measures such as going remote for most classes, canceling campus events for more than 50 attendees and prohibiting University-affiliated travel outside North Carolina.
William Sollecito, a professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health, said it’s important to train professors in using educational software as UNC prepares to switch to an online learning system.
“One key to it is teaching future educators how to use these technologies in a way that complements traditional teaching methods,” he said. “That is, not just assuming that every faculty member can be handed a laptop with the latest educational software and know how to use online methodologies.”
In terms of how the University has changed since then with regard to public health outbreaks, University Technical Services Archivist Dawne Lucas said things were considerably different at UNC than they are today.
“The University at this time was considerably smaller, both geographically and population-wise,” she said. “The town of Chapel Hill was also considerably smaller. For example, Franklin Street wasn’t paved and the Carolina Inn hadn’t been built yet. It’s also not like today where students and faculty are coming onto campus from other cities and countries on a daily basis.”
Essentially, Lucas said, quarantining the University would have been easier to pull off in 1918 than it would be today.
“A direct result of the pandemic was the University appointing its first University physician, Eric Alonzo Abernethy, in 1919,” Lucas said. “Before this appointment, several doctors cared for infirmary patients on a rotating basis.”
A century ago, some officials made efforts to downplay the 1918 influenza outbreak, so as to not damage morale for the war effort.
President Woodrow Wilson, for example, released no public statements about the issue, according to The Washington Post, and Surgeon General Rupert Blue said: “There is no cause for alarm if proper precautions are observed." Another top health official dismissed it as “ordinary influenza by another name.”
Lucas said a parade to raise money for the war effort happened in Philadelphia, despite warnings from public health officials.
“Since canceling the parade could damage morale for the war effort, city officials proceeded as planned." Lucas said. "Two days later, influenza was widespread throughout Philadelphia. The incubation period for influenza is approximately two days.”
The Spanish flu pandemic was not the last public health issue the University has responded to. In 1952, for example, there was a polio outbreak that affected five UNC students. During this outbreak, hitchhikers were scattered along highways out of town as students ignored the requests to stay on campus and went home.
Dr. Gregory Gray, professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Duke University's School of Medicine, said that compared to the 2009 swine flu, the coronavirus is not only more infectious, but more lethal, as well.
“Early estimates for case fatality among SARS-CoV2-infected patients are under considerable debate,” Dr. Gray said. “Even so, early estimates are that infections with SARS-CoV2 is anywhere from 100 to 400 times more likely to cause fatalities than infections with the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.”
Multiple news outlets have reported on the importance of social distancing as the virus spreads and reacting appropriately to the severity of the disease, which has been classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization.
UNC has yet to announce how long the period of online learning will last. Updates about the coronavirus response can be found on the University's dedicated website.
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