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How do Lethbridge’s past pandemics compare to COVID-19?

COVID-19: How do Lethbridge’s past pandemics compare?
WATCH ABOVE: A Lethbridge historian says the Spanish flu in 1918 bore many similarities to COVID-19 when it came to quarantine measures and protections. Emily Olsen reports.

Lethbridge historian, Belinda Crowson, says there are many similarities between the approach to COVID-19 and to the Spanish Influenza more than a century ago.

“Every pandemic and epidemic has had something different about it,” Crowson said. “When we look at the 1918 -1919 one, there’s a lot of similarities because the government tried many of the same things.”

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In the winter of 1918 there were more than 2200 cases and 94 deaths recorded in Lethbridge.

The following January saw 126 new cases and 13 deaths recorded, then 224 cases and 22 deaths were reported between April 10 and 25.

“They set up extra hospitals, they warned people what to expect, so the Medical Officer of Health, Dr. deVeber, was putting articles in the newspaper so people would know what to do.”

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Schools were closed, quarantines were imposed on many houses and there were even travel restrictions.

“They would lock the outside of trains as they were going through Lethbridge, so no one would be able to get off,” Crowson said.

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Stores in the city were also closed, then later reopened with limited hours.

“You had to wear either a gauze mask, or a cheese cloth mask, because the materials available were a lot different,” Crowson said. “If you were going to go shopping in any of the Lethbridge stores.”

People were even encouraged to make their own masks, and patterns were available in the Lethbridge Herald.

An illustration of a homemade mask pattern found in the Lethbridge Herald during the Spanish Influenza.
An illustration of a homemade mask pattern found in the Lethbridge Herald during the Spanish Influenza. Lethbridge Historical Society

Crowson said without antibiotics and vaccines, quarantine rules were far more stringent.

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“They could actually put a yellow sign on your door that quarantined your house.”

With many nurses off to support the war effort in Europe at the time, Crowson says everyone pitched in to help.

“Some recalled putting the sick in quarantine tents outside of the hospital… checking on them each morning to see who had survived,” she said. 

By the 1957 flu pandemic, Crowson said health guidelines had been put in place across the country to help manage the spread.

However, she adds that Lethbridge was put on the map as having the first confirmed case in Canada.

“It was a young girl from Lethbridge named Mary Lester,” Crowson said.

“She was a girl guide, and she’d been sent to a girl guide camp in Ontario. And when she returned back, it was reported in the Herald that she was first person in Canada to come down with the influenza in the 1957 pandemic. And her mother actually questioned that, but it was confirmed. She had a mild case. When she got back from camp she spent a couple of days in bed not feeling well, but they hadn’t even realized she had influenza at that time.”

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Crowson says that mild case was thanks in part to the lessons learned during the Spanish flu.

“One of the things that makes the 1957 pandemic so different from the 1918 one, is that we had an influenza vaccine by 1957, and they gave it to thousands of essential workers, healthcare personnel, police et cetera in 1957,” Crowson explained.

“So while both 1918 and 1957 are both pandemics, the death rates are completely different.”

One thing that sets apart the pandemic in 1918 and present day, Crowson said, is the war and the Great Depression that followed.

“The rebuilding is never as fast as we want it to be and never as easy as we want it to be.”

While economic recovery following COVID-19 will be a challenge, she says Lethbridge has survived much worse.

”Every horrible thing, we have gotten through,” she said. “And this community has shown incredible resilience.”