LAS VEGAS — Nevada is no stranger to pandemics. Whether human or animal, disease epidemics have regularly visited the Silver State through documented history. The earliest pandemic affecting North America was likely smallpox brought with European settlers to indigenous populations. Other epidemics continued as Europeans settled across the American continent.
Such epidemics were ravaging and fatal. Early reports of smallpox infections first appeared on the East Coast of Canada after being introduced by French Jesuits in 1625. Whole villages were described as being “utterly exterminated.”
A “colonial epidemic” occurred in Massachusetts affecting both natives and settlers. Yellow fever hit Barbados and Cuba in 1648 and led to a quarantine in Boston from ships sailing from the West Indies. Smallpox and yellow fever made appearances in the colonies for decades to come. Smallpox in particular continued to impact populated colonies, such as Boston, during the war in 1775. Yellow Fever hit Philadelphia in 1793, “killing thousands.”
Cholera and diphtheria became more prominent in the mid-1800s. In 1856 diphtheria became an epidemic in California, likely the first epidemic close to Nevada. Indeed, The Gold Hill News reported diphtheria as prevalent in California to the point of being almost an epidemic. Typhoid fever “and other kindred diseases” were analyzed in an 1882 edition of the Nevada State Journal. Diphtheria was documented on the Comstock in the late 1800s.
It was influenza, though, that ended up as having the most pronounced impact on the Silver State. First was the so-called Russian flu, or Asiatic flu, in 1889-90, that one early report dismissed: “No one in Nevada need bother themselves over the sensational reports of the Russian influenza,” a Daily Appeal article reported to its readers Jan. 1, 1890.
Today, however, the Russian flu “is often cited as the first modern flu pandemic” that killed almost 13,000 people in the United States. It had a 4 percent fatality rate. Its death toll would be surpassed nearly 20 years later, however, by the 1918 Pandemic.
The 1918 Pandemic was commonly referred to as “Spanish Flu,” now considered a misnomer because of the belief at that time that the flu originated on the Iberian Peninsula. While it spread through France and Spain, there is evidence it may have originated in Kansas.
The pandemic hit the U.S. in three waves. Internationally, the 1918 Pandemic is called by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “the most severe pandemic in recent history. It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes of avian origin…”
A third of the world population at the time, about 500 million people, became infected. Estimated deaths were 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in just the United States. As of July of 2019, the CDC characterized the epidemic as having “a comparable death rate [that] has not been observed during any of the known flu seasons or pandemics that have occurred either prior to or following the 1918 pandemic.”
Nevada news sources documented the many adverse impacts on Nevada’s citizens from the 1918 Pandemic, which reached Nevada communities most notably in October. Sources are scattered, and reports occasionally inconsistent, so the full impact on Nevada may never completely be known. Available anecdotes show, however, the virus disrupted normal ways of life and caused controversy among citizens, business owners and officials.
The 1918 Pandemic forced dramatic measures in Nevada. Schools and churches were closed and businesses were shut down. With a population of less than 12,000, Reno officials quickly became concerned. Nevada Governor Emmet Boyle blamed train passengers for introducing the flu to Nevada.
“The state board of health will therefore appoint qualified medical men to make a thorough examination of each passenger on every train that enters the state east or west,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported Oct. 23, 1918.
Potentially affected passengers were to be removed from the train and prevented from further travel. California objected to this idea. It’s not clear if this mandate became reality, but it shows the efforts made by officials to attempt to contain the spread of the virus.
Reno Mayor Frank Byington complained.
“We have been agitating for such a move for several days but could not find the governor to get his permission,” he said. “All the disease in Reno has been brought here by careless persons and if we can prevent people afflicted with it from coming in, we will have gone a long way towards stamping out the epidemic.”
Quarantine efforts appeared on and off in Reno starting in October of 1918. Business shutdowns included saloons, theaters, and schools, as reported in the Reno Evening Gazette, much to the consternation of business owners.
“Reno has been a quiet town for a month,” the Reno Evening Gazette’s society column noted in mid-November.
Business owners protested the quarantine.
“Proprietors of theaters and cabarets in Reno yesterday filed a petition with Mayor Byington and the city board of health asking that their places of business be permitted to open Sunday. The petition pointed out that these places have now been closed from a week to 10 days longer than those of other cities which were under quarantine to prevent the spread of the Spanish influenza.” This was reported in the Nevada State Journal, Nov. 7, 1918.
By Nov. 14, it was reported that such businesses “may open.” Reno’s quarantine was officially lifted Nov. 15, but city physician Dr. Alex McIntyre warned people to effectively practice social distancing. He told people to avoid crowds and homes under quarantine.
Crowds instantly became a norm again regardless. An ad appearing in the Nevada State Journal on the 16th announced “The War Is Over and So Is the ‘Flu.’” It was for a performance at the Majestic Theatre on East First Street. “The Majestic Theatre has been thoroughly cleaned and fumigated and everything arranged in detail to assure you comfort and pleasing entertainment,” the printed advertisement promised.
“Great crowds” were reported Nov. 18 at local churches. “For four weeks the churches were closed by the influenza ban and sermonless Sundays were becoming monotonous,” the Reno Evening Gazette wrote. “Then the health board lifted the ban and everyone went to church. Never before in the history of Reno, according to the ministers, were the congregations so large with the possible exception of Christmas and Easter Sunday.”
Deaths continued to be reported in the Reno area after the Nov. 15 lockdown was lifted.
“Flu masks” had started making an appearance around the Biggest Little City as early as mid-October — including at a Sparks wedding at one point. Barbers, bank employees and others wore the masks to prevent the spread of the flu virus, but continued illnesses prompted the city to consider making masks mandatory in December.
The Reno Evening Gazette reported that “Reno may be transacting business behind the gauze ‘flu’ masks within the next few days. The board of health [became] near ordering a complete masking of the city last night…,” the newspaper reported in early December.
Targeted quarantine restrictions were also proposed in December: “The mayor suggested to the board that homes where there is influenza be placed under strict quarantine but the physicians contended that this was impossible as nurses were not available and neighbors must be allowed to enter homes and care for the patients,” the newspaper reported.
The doctors had conflicting opinions, however, since the flu could be confused with a common cold, and the Nevada State Journal opined Dec. 4 that there was “no sound argument … in favor of masks.”
Reno schools closed Oct. 18 and again about a month later.
“From the best information we can get we believe the number of influenza cases in Reno is increasing,” the Daily Appeal of Carson City reported.
Teachers and students had been afflicted, and as many as 43 percent of students were not attending school.
“We do not know the exact number of cases of influenza. From a survey we have made this morning teachers report 184 cases of influenza in the different parts of the city, besides the 158 cases of illness the nature of which is not known,” the paper noted.
The 1918 Pandemic’s effect on Reno was serious enough that doctors were threatened with prosecution if they did not report flu cases, and one doctor was reportedly arrested for the infraction.
“Prosecutions of physicians who fail to report cases of influenza under their treatment will probably be initiated by the board of health, according to the board. The physicians are compelled by law to report cases, but it is estimated that not more than fifty per cent in this city have been reported and … steps may be taken to enforce the law,” as reported by the Reno Evening Gazette on Dec. 2.
The University of Nevada, Reno also had to close during the pandemic. Students were impacted not just from the flu but from war drafts. The UNR president at the time promised that the following fall, of 1919, would be the university’s best yet.
Tonopah was hit particularly hard by the flu. Founded in 1900 and booming from mining activity, which had peaked in production by 1914, and again in 1918, the city was one of the world’s largest gold-producing regions. It had a population of about 3,900 in 1910 and more than 4,000 people in 1920.
A doctor from California had to come to Tonopah to oversee an emergency hospital. Six influenza deaths were reported in one day in November. The town’s “high mortality rate is due to the fact that most of the early cases of those whose personal habits militated against their recovery,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported Nov. 18, which seems to be a way of saying the victims, in today’s parlance, may have had “underlying health conditions” or engaged in behavior that increased the risk of contracting the virus.
“Promiscuous dancing” was noted in one report as a cause for Tonopah’s flu spread. By the end of the 1918 it was reported in the Reno Evening Gazette “the county hospital is filled to capacity and the mine operators prefer not to accept flu cases except in men holding benefit cards, as the management feels that the place is designed for surgical work and that every effort should be made to preserve septic conditions.”
The town had to extend quarantines, including school closures, through Jan. 6. Teachers were concerned about quarantine extensions because of a fear of losing pay, and the town at one point made flu masks mandatory.
“The board [of health] ordered that masks be worn until further orders and the chief of police was instructive to see that the ordinance is enforced literally on the streets in public places,” the Reno Evening Gazette wrote Dec. 7. This was after the town considered lifting its quarantine, “but the appearance of the disease along the main line of the railroad has aroused the fear of a second visitation which could be worse than the first which claimed forty-two victims in the first three weeks.”
By the end of the year, Tonopah eased some restrictions. Those wanting to dance had to wear flu masks.
“Quarantine regulations have been revised to permit dancing to resume with the stipulation that masks be worn at all times during the evening. The ban was lifted owing to representations that the owners of a resort had gone to considerable expense for the holiday season and that they would see to the faithful observance of the mask ordinance providing they were allowed to resume,” reported the Reno Evening Gazette, Dec. 25.
But more cases hit the area after schools reopened in January. The “health board [declared] that the number of children of school age suffering from a mild form of influenza has increased rapidly within the past few days,” the Reno Evening Gazette reported, Jan. 10, 1919. It wasn’t until May of 1919 that Tonopah reported the end of the epidemic.
There had not been a flu-related death for 10 days.
Rurals also impacted
Other populated areas in the Silver State saw devastation as a result of the 1918 Pandemic: McDermitt, Fallon, Fernley, Lovelock, Battle Mountain, Pioche, Las Vegas and Denio each reported losses from the virus.
“The influenza situation at Lovelock and Battle Mountain is very serious and inability to secure sufficient nurses to care for the sick is making matters worse,” the Reno Evening Gazette documented Dec. 3.
Fernley had at least a four-week quarantine. Fallon reported 500 influenza cases, but “the death rate was very low” (Reno Evening Gazette, Dec. 2, 1918). McDermitt reported more than half of its population, including “all the local physicians,” were sickened with the virus. “There was a large proportion of deaths,” according to the Reno Evening Gazette.
A nurse died trying to reach Denio from Winnemucca to attend to influenza victims. Her and a fellow nurse’s car stalled while driving through snow, causing them to walk 10 miles into Denio. “Enroute the auto broke down and the women, thinly clad, walked ten miles to a road station where both collapsed.” This was reported by the Nevada State Journal, Dec. 12, 1918.
Winnemucca was on lockdown for six weeks, in November and December, and that was only lifted in late December since “there [was] very little of the ‘flu’ remaining in town,” The Reno Gazette reported on the last day of the year.
Virginia City had 40-50 cases of influenza by Nov. 24, prompting an “urgent call for aid,” specifically from the Red Cross in San Francisco. “It is therefore imperative that the strictest care be exercised by everyone and all quarantine regulations be rigidly observed,” the Carson City Daily Appeal warned on Nov. 20. By Nov. 30, the Appeal reported that despite 10 new cases, it was “believed the disease [had] reached its crest…” The flu started to wane on the Comstock by early December.
Gardnerville lifted its quarantine on Dec. 24, just in time for Christmas services, even though the town was still reporting flu illnesses.
People in Nevada continued to die of the flu well into 1919. The third wave of the virus lasted into the spring. Cases waned by summer. The Pioche Record in 1919 reported the flu epidemic in the coming fall would not be as severe as the previous year and that “contrary to the opinion expressed frequently during the early weeks of last year’s pandemic by a number of observers, the studies of the United States public health service indicate that epidemic was not a fresh importation from abroad.”
By November of 1919, Reno news media cautioned people to “watch their step” in anticipation of another outbreak, which did not return with the same vengeance as the year prior.
All told, the disease killed more people than soldiers and civilians from World War I. The H1N1 virus continued to reappear for decades to come. By 1960, the U.S. government began recommending annual vaccinations for the virus, which has notably diminished the severity of outbreaks.
Dr. Alicia Barber assisted with editing and fact-checking this article.