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Thanksgiving 1918 took place during a deadly pandemic. What can it teach us for Thanksgiving this year?

By Anthony R. Wood, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in News & Features

In so many other ways, they are as different as the Thanksgiving of 1918 and Thanksgiving 2020.

The biggest contrast is in ferocity. In October 1918, the flu claimed as many lives as 4,500 in a week, and 13,500 in the September through December period in Philadelphia, according to the Centers for Disease Control. So far under 2,000 deaths have been attributed to COVID-19 in Philadelphia.

In Pennsylvania, nearly two-thirds of coronavirus deaths have occurred in nursing facilities. The Spanish flu's favored targets were people 20 to 40 years old. In all, 25% of Americans were infected.

The flu was so horrific and such an "outlier" that it would be hard to identify any lasting lesson, said Barnes, who teaches the history of medicine and public health.

But, he added, that doesn't have to be the case with this pandemic.



Davis, who wrote a book about the flu, "More Deadly Than War," is among those who has chronicled Philadelphia's infamous Liberty Bond Parade of Sept. 28, 1918. Attended by 200,000 people and featuring march king John Philip Sousa, it was an all-time superspreader event. Deaths spiked within 72 hours.

On Oct. 3, the state ordered all theaters and saloons closed, and Philadelphia added schools and churches to the list. But it was too late: During the week that ended Oct. 19, 4,500 were dead.

By the first week in November, the flu virus "had burned up all the available fuel," Davis said, and even though massive crowds gathered to celebrate the war-ending Armistice on Nov. 11, the after-effects weren't as dire.

In the week that ended Nov. 23, the city did report 103 deaths. That did not stop Thanksgiving.


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