Parallels & Help: COVID-19 Coronavirus and Spanish Flu Pandemics

Pandemics, described as epidemics that spread to very large areas or the entire world, aren’t new.

It was exactly 100 years ago, this day, that my father, serving in the military where he had been suffering from the Spanish Flu in the Army barracks at Camp Custer, Michigan awaited word about his grandparents.

Joseph, known as Dode, Bolton had died on February 24rd. The flu was rampant in the Claiborne County, TN community of Hoop Creek where he and his wife, Margaret Claxton lived.

On Dode’s death certificate, his cause of death was described as “Pneumonia in both lungs following the flu.” The doctor has been caring for him for 6 days, although there wasn’t much the doctor could do.

flu Dode.png

The death certificate says Dode was buried the next day, but that’s not what the family recalled.

Dode’s body was put out in the barn where it was cold, awaiting burial. Everyone was sick, too sick to build a casket and dig a grave. Besides, the family was waiting on something else.

Margaret was sick too. She wasn’t expected to live either – and she didn’t. She lingered another 14 days beyond Dode when she too died of flu complications on March 10.

Flu Margaret.png

According to her death certificate, she had been under the doctor’s care since the same day as Dode. Her cause of death was “Bronco Pnumonia following flu.”

The family stated that they were buried together in the spring, when the ground thawed and people got well enough to dig the graves and bury the couple.

Browsing the Claiborne County death records, there were many spring deaths that year.

100 Years Apart

Dode and Margaret died before the invention of antibiotics and anti-viral drugs. Before the days of oxygen “tents,” hospitals and life-saving treatments. And certainly, before the days of vaccinations.

One would think that in today’s modern world, we would be beyond rapidly spreading pandemics – yet – here we are.

Exactly 100 years later we are facing another uncontrolled pandemic – the COVID-19 Coronavirus.

But there is one big difference. Our world has gotten smaller in the sense that people travel more often, more rapidly and more widely. Everyone depends on automobiles and rapid transit systems. Air travel is an everyday occurrence – meaning that a contagious disease can be very quickly spread worldwide. That’s exactly what’s happening. People travel, become infected and spread the disease back home before they know they are ill, like ant poison carried into the heart of the entire ant colony – Typhoid Mary on steroids.

What is the COVID-19 Coronavirus?

The Covid-19 Coronavirus is related to other viruses, which make humans and animals sick.

Over time, viruses mutate, become slightly different and more deadly as we have no immunity to fight the new viral strain.

That’s why there’s a new flu shot developed every year, and why the effectiveness may vary. Sometimes different people become sick from the same virus in different ways, meaning some people who are infected with the COVID-19 may have either no or light symptoms. Some become very sick but recover. And of course, as we’ve all heard, some die.

The worse part though, is that it appears that people can actually infect others during the 2- 14 days before they develop symptoms and up to 14 days after the symptoms are gone.

Symptoms can appear 2-14 days after exposure. Some people are contagious but have no symptoms as all. Not a lot is known about this virus at this time, so an abundance of caution is in order.

What are the Symptoms?

Flu Covid symptoms

By Mikael Häggström, M.D.- Author info- Reusing images – Own work, CC0,

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports symptoms here, which include:

  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath

Generally NOT a runny nose, vomiting or intestinal discomfort. This virus attacks through the lungs – although everyone can manifest this disease somewhat differently.

Older people, over 60, and increasing with age, or people with compromised immune systems such as HIV or transplant patients, people undergoing chemo or people with underlying organic systemic health issues such as lung, liver, kidney or heart disease are particularly vulnerable.

There is currently no vaccine nor treatment except for treating the symptoms individually as they appear. Therefore, prevention is key.

Diagnostic Swab Test

There is a swab test, but they are in very short supply inthe US and most people with symptoms are currently not being tested here.

Currently, the virus has been confirmed in about half the US states, but with no or inadequate testing, it’s certainly possible that it’s far more widespread than we know at this point.

My family member who teaches at a medical school hospital says they’ve adopted the “washing and introvert” protocol. That’s good advice for all of us.

What Can You Do?

This is NOT a time to panic, but it absolutely IS time to educate yourself and take preventative measures, including:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for a full minute, often.
  • Use hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes liberally. Can’t find hand sanitizer? You can use anything with more than 60% alcohol. Here’s a list of disinfecting products provided by the EPA. Here’s a sanitizer recipe, and another one here from the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • Follow CDC recommendations here.
  • If you get sick with COVID-19 symptoms, the initial recommendation was to go to the hospital to be tested. However, now the recommendation is to call your health-care provider so as not to potentially infect others.
  • Don’t touch things like gas pump handles and doorknobs, especially in public places. I always wash my hands after touching things like menus in restaurants.
  • Stay home. Given that people don’t know if they are infected and can be infecting others for a full 2 weeks before they realize they are ill, your best bet to stay well is to stay at home.
  • If you feel ill or “off,” don’t go to work or anyplace. Many employers are arranging for people to work from home if possible.
  • If your child is ill, keep them at home too. School and confined spaces are literally petri dishes.
  • Don’t touch your face, meaning mouth, nose or eyes. People think they don’t, but they do without realizing it. This also extends to finger foods.

Face masks may or may not be effective. The virus is typically spread by actual contact, but if you are sneezed on directly and breath in the drops, you can contract the disease that way. However, the most common infection route is through touching something an infected person touched or otherwise contaminated and then touching your face. Face masks may help prevent you from touching your own face, even if they don’t directly prevent the virus in other ways. Please see the letter from Dr. Robb, below.

Where to Obtain Reliable News

This virus is a health issue, not a political football (please, no political comments, regardless of how you feel.) I would strongly, strongly recommend obtaining your information from health professionals and those who have no other agenda.

Here are some resources for you, including maps.

Letter from Dr. James Robb, MD FCAP

This letter, written to his family and friends by James Robb, MD FCAP, a renowned pathologist, confirmed by SNOPES, provides the following common-sense insight:

Dear Family and Friends, as some of you may recall, when I was a professor of pathology at the University of California San Diego, I was one of the first molecular virologists in the world to work on coronaviruses (the 1970s). I was the first to demonstrate the number of genes the virus contained. Since then, I have kept up with the coronavirus field and its multiple clinical transfers into the human population (e.g., SARS, MERS), from different animal sources.

The current projections for its expansion in the US are only probable, due to continued insufficient worldwide data, but it is most likely to be widespread by mid to late March and April.

Here is what I have done and the precautions that I take and will take. These are the same precautions I currently use during our influenza seasons, except for the mask and gloves.:

1) NO HANDSHAKING! Use a fist bump, slight bow, elbow bump, etc.

2) Use ONLY your knuckle to touch light switches. elevator buttons, etc.. Lift the gasoline dispenser with a paper towel or use a disposable glove.

3) Open doors with your closed fist or hip – do not grasp the handle with your hand, unless there is no other way to open the door. Especially important on bathroom and post office/commercial doors.

4) Use disinfectant wipes at the stores when they are available, including wiping the handle and child seat in grocery carts.

5) Wash your hands with soap for 10-20 seconds and/or use a greater than 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever you return home from ANY activity that involves locations where other people have been.

6) Keep a bottle of sanitizer available at each of your home’s entrances. AND in your car for use after getting gas or touching other contaminated objects when you can’t immediately wash your hands.

7) If possible, cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue and discard. Use your elbow only if you have to. The clothing on your elbow will contain infectious virus that can be passed on for up to a week or more!

What I have stocked in preparation for the pandemic spread to the US:

1) Latex or nitrile latex disposable gloves for use when going shopping, using the gasoline pump, and all other outside activity when you come in contact with contaminated areas.

Note: This virus is spread in large droplets by coughing and sneezing. This means that the air will not infect you! BUT all the surfaces where these droplets land are infectious for about a week on average – everything that is associated with infected people will be contaminated and potentially infectious. The virus is on surfaces and you will not be infected unless your unprotected face is directly coughed or sneezed upon. This virus only has cell receptors for lung cells (it only infects your lungs). The only way for the virus to infect you is through your nose or mouth via your hands or an infected cough or sneeze onto or into your nose or mouth.

2) Stock up now with disposable surgical masks and use them to prevent you from touching your nose and/or mouth (We touch our nose/mouth 90X/day without knowing it!). This is the only way this virus can infect you – it is lung-specific. The mask will not prevent the virus in a direct sneeze from getting into your nose or mouth – it is only to keep you from touching your nose or mouth.

3) Stock up now with hand sanitizers and latex/nitrile gloves (get the appropriate sizes for your family). The hand sanitizers must be alcohol-based and greater than 60% alcohol to be effective.

4) Stock up now with zinc lozenges. These lozenges have been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus (and most other viruses) from multiplying in your throat and nasopharynx. Use as directed several times each day when you begin to feel ANY “cold-like” symptoms beginning. It is best to lie down and let the lozenge dissolve in the back of your throat and nasopharynx. Cold-Eeze lozenges is one brand available, but there are other brands available.

I, as many others do, hope that this pandemic will be reasonably contained, BUT I personally do not think it will be. Humans have never seen this snake-associated virus before and have no internal defense against it. Tremendous worldwide efforts are being made to understand the molecular and clinical virology of this virus. Unbelievable molecular knowledge about the genomics, structure, and virulence of this virus has already been achieved. BUT, there will be NO drugs or vaccines available this year to protect us or limit the infection within us. Only symptomatic support is available.

I hope these personal thoughts will be helpful during this potentially catastrophic pandemic. Good luck to all of us,

James Robb, MD FCAP

There is NO Rewind

Once it’s too late, you can’t go back for a do-over, so please don’t think this advice is for “everyone else.” It’s for everyone, including you and me. Yes, I know it’s inconvenient, but it’s also critically important.

Major conferences are cancelling as are events that bring people into close contact. These cancellations have huge economic impacts on the sponsors and attendees, meaning this is not a decision the organizers take lightly. If they are willing to forgo this opportunity and suffer the economic consequences in order to keep attendees safe, even if the virus isn’t known to be found in that location – yet – please heed that example and do the same, even if something you had planned to do hasn’t yet cancelled. All I can say is that I’m glad RootsTech was last week instead of next week – because I wouldn’t be there.

If you minimize your own chances of exposure, you also minimize infecting others before you know you’ve been exposed. Remember, people are contagious as much as 2 weeks both before and after they are actually ill, if they manifest symptoms at all.

Once the damage is done, there no going back and “I’m sorry” matters not to dead people or their grieving families. Back in 1920, Dode and Margaret were sharing a gourd dipper for drinking well water and attending church with their neighbors who were doing the same. They didn’t understand about germs and contagion. We do and we have the opportunity, and responsibility, to prevent that same outcome.

Take a look around you – those people you love are the people you are saving by NOT taking a chance of getting infected yourself.

Introvert, stay home, wash your hands and do some genealogy.

As Dr. Robb said, “good luck to all of us.”

Please feel free to share this article widely.



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44 thoughts on “Parallels & Help: COVID-19 Coronavirus and Spanish Flu Pandemics

  1. I bought some extra dry foods like pasta, dried fruit, etc. That’s about it. Nothing crazy and that was last weekend. I pray all my remaining aunts and uncles (one in Sonoma County) avoid picking up this virus. (I wish they would do a DNA test too. Nope.) I went to fill up my car’s gas tank today. I’m careful about a lot of things but I’ve never stopped to think about how dirty that handle might be!

  2. Thanks so much for the article, Roberta. I live in Kirkland, Washington – ground zero, six blocks from the nursing home that has experienced as of today 12 deaths. I’m sure there will be more as another group of residents are at Evergreen Health Hospital, my local hospital, and I hear and see ambulances and EMS vehicles several times a day. One fact not yet reported, 70 of 180 employees of the nursing home are showing symptoms. We are still seeing just the tip of a very large iceberg. Needless to say, I’m staying home as much as possible and have so far been without flu-like symptoms. I pray this ends as quickly as possible. Stay safe everyone and stay well !

  3. Where are you or anyone else getting the idea that people are going to stay home for TWO WEEKS every time they get a cold, with no way to know if it is corona virus?

    The notion that there are standard symptoms of corona virus is not true. The virus infects the intestinal tract and many people get nausea or diarrheah before they get sick. The virus readily infects the nose and throat and sore throats are common.

    And the fact that one mostly has a cough doesn’t mean it’s corona virus. Something like that has been going around Austin, Texas, where I live for weeks, I had it – and school children haven’t been coming down with it. Something goes through an entire community and school children never cough is the world just turned upside down. But, allegedly, corona virus is not here, and, seemingly noone has been hospitalized with it. However, if they were, if they could not IDENTIFY SOMEONE THEY SHARE A HOUSEHOLD WITH WHO HAS CORONA VIRUS, the local health department will not test them.

    Do you think I stayed home for two weeks? Don’t even think about it. Noone at work stayed home at all. That’s how come I came down with it.

  4. Thank you for this article.

    Here is another map created at Johns Hopkins that is continuously updated with data from a variety of sources:

    The people who most need face masks are healthcare workers and those who are ill (to prevent spread to family members or others). Please don’t stock up on face masks to use as a reminder to keep hands away from faces. Bandanas can serve that function and they are washable!

  5. There is 1 major difference which made Spanish flu worse that any other pandemic. Spanish Flu mostly killed younger adults, where as Coronavirus is taking out the elderly. The reason that makes it worse is cause the younger adults make up the most of the work force and military, not to mention younger adults are responsible for reproducing the next generation.

  6. Some good tips from Dr Robb but there are some possible side effects from using zinc such as losing the sense of smell.

  7. The “Spanish Flu” killed 50 million people world wide over a 2-3 year span. It was starting when WWI was starting in 1918, so with troop movements around the world, it was similar to the rapid movement of people with air travel today.

  8. Roberta,
    Do you know whether Dode is a common nickname for Joseph? One of my ancestor’s had a son Joseph whose nickname was Dode. And how do you get Dode out of Joseph?

    • That’s interesting. I’ve never heard it before or since, until now. I’ve always wondered the same thing.

  9. You might want to buy much more food that is non-perishable, or frozen. You can always use it later if it is not needed soon. I am at the point that I do not want to eat fast foods or in a restaurant. My trips to the grocery store and other stores are now limited, and when I do go, it is at off times. Besides the corona virus, hepatitis-A, and the flu is in my general area. Think about this.

    Thank you for the informative article. I was hoping you did not have more group things you planned to attend. May you all stay well.

    • Hi Rosemary. My next conference is in June. I hope this has burned itself out by then. We will see.

      • I truly hope so too. Let us hope it will not have a 2-3 year duration like the Spanish flu. Let us be thankful we have tv, the internet, hobbies and crafts, and genealogy / DNA to keep us occupied, and distracted from worries. Wash hand often, and stay distracted!

      • Be careful! I have been checking Indiana cases because I have family there, including people in their 60’s and eighties with health issues. The first two Indiana cases were from different counties but both had attended the same BioGen conference in Boston. Now there are 6 cases in Indiana, two of which are children who attend the same school. The school has closed but how many children and their families and community had already been infecred? This is a case where tge whole community should be in quarantine!

    • Wipe down the cans and packages you bring home (or receive in the mail) before storing with a household cleaner such as a bleach solution. We carry surfaces home with us when we shop or go out for school, work, events, including packages, food cans, sacks, boxes, toys, canes, walkers, purses, backpacks, electronic devices, notebooks, planners, shoes, clothing, etc.

  10. Roberta, thank you for this article and those who have responded to you.

    I am such a germ freak, I will not bore anyone.

    My grip is that EVERYBODY wants to shake hands these days; and I do not want to shake hands with anybody, period, ever.

    So, hopefully, this “hand shaking” thing will end.

    And BTW, as a child of the South, I was taught men never extended their hand to shake with a lady, unless she extended her hand first. Has all of that changed? I did not get the memo. LOL

    • It’s ironic that I’ve never heard of that handshake protocol.

      I grew up not hugging people. So imagine my shock when someone, not a family member, grabbed me and hugged me. Unfortunately, perhaps, now I hug a lot. I never thought about it making people uncomfortable. But some people would be uncomfortable if one didn’t hug or at least handshake. Any ideas on how to resolve this tactfully?

      • This was included in etiquette books in the past. A lady offers her hand first. And it was not just in the South.

        A good non pandemic time modern rule is “Do not assume handshakes, hand bumps, hugs or even air kisses near the cheek are welcome! And the same for high fives!”

        But for times when pandemics are a definite threat, the best practice is to assume no physical contact or in your face contact is welcome and none is expected. And none allowed with strangers or casual acquaintances.

        Maybe the reason people are not aware of the old etiquette rule about ladies offering their hand first is that in most circles of, handshakes are not as common as they once were.

        • I spent my adult life in the business world and if you didn’t shake hands, it was a slight. I wonder how many people I’ve accidentally offended.

          • A week-and-a-half ago, Thursday, February 27, the day before the first tests from here in Kirkland were made public, I visited and spoke with the Medical Director of Kirkland’s EvergreenHealth Hospital. We introduced each other and then bumped elbows. I actually prefer the Japanese bow even more, as bumping elbows still requires you to be within two feet of the person.

            And yes, growing up in the South, I learned not to offer a lady my hand unless it was offered first. So it came as a cultural shock when the first wave of Cubans began coming to Miami and everyone was kissing each other on the cheek.

    • I truly have a legit reason to avoid a handshake. I have a hand skin condition that requires a cortazoid/steroid cream on my hands about 1/3 of the time so I just tell them why I do not shake hands.

  11. Roberta, thanks for posting these timely reminders.

    When we tell friends and family that we’re holed up at home with plenty of food and medicines, they think we’re being paranoid. We tell them that by the time your elderly neighbor down the street dies, it’s too late. I’ve heard a lot of comments on message boards of all kinds who think that this is overblown, or some kind of vote-suppression hoax during primary season, but I’d rather be wrong and prepared than anything else.

    • Given that it’s worldwide, it’s clearly not a hoax. Given that, I do see people passing on all types of theories. Better to be prepared and wrong. It won’t hurt anyone to take precautions, especially since the alternative could be so horrible.

  12. My grandmother’s brother died of the Influenza in 1918. He was a 28 year old physician working in Harrisburg PA. He left a wife and a young son. A second son was born shortly his father’s death. The family brought his body home to Texas for burial. These are the stories that are passed down in every family.

  13. Thanks, Roberta. We are not panicking but staying informed. My husband and I are of an age where precautions are more important.

    I am reminded that my mother was hospitalized with the Spanish flu in 1918, our great-uncle died in France, my dad’s father died and his mother barely survived.

    We don’t know what we don’t know about this disease, so we will have to wait and see and hope the number deaths remains as low as possible.

  14. One of the great works of world literature is a collection of stories, imagined as something a group of people told each other on a hill in Italy while isolating themselves FROM people infected with plague in the 1300s for a couple of weeks or so.
    If you need to self-isolate, reading Bocaccio’s Decameron is still a good way to pass the time.
    Or you could binge download something more modern.

  15. The “Spanish” Flu was shocking because it often killed healthy people within a day.
    But the ongoing flu epidemic during the 1890s killed quite a few, nearly as quickly, with a swathe of my family dying around March 1895, often overnight.
    A little earlier, Scarlet Fever was known to take children in as little as 2 hours, with one child then another gone between breakfast and lunch. The folk memory of that was so strong that when my mother had Scarlet Fever as a child in the late 1930s the doctor gave it a different name. Fortunately it was much milder then and the first Sulpha antibiotic was available.
    And despite knowing how some diseases could break out and strike people aboard emigrant ships, many of our ancestors bravely chose to take the chance.

  16. Roberta,

    Great timely article! I am sharing the link with my groups and forwarding the article to family members.

    Thanks so much!

  17. Both of my paternal great grandmothers died of the Spanish flu in 1920. They lived in Carter County, Tennessee. They were both in their 60’s.

  18. My great grandfather died in Australia 3rd April 1919 from Bronchitis so I would say he had Spanish Flu it’s 101 years next month

  19. Thank for that article. My grandmother got the Spanish Flu and lived to tell about it. I hope more people will read the facts and not panic as that has already disrupted normal supply chains for toilet paper and bottled water for instance. If everyone is careful and follows recommended practices, we will get through this.

  20. Pingback: Phylogenetic Tree of Novel Coronavirus (hCoV-19) Covid-19 | DNAeXplained – Genetic Genealogy

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