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The 1918 flu pandemic in Sonoma County and beyond

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Images of emergency hospitals, mask-wearing shoppers and concerned doctors are circulating the globe these days, bearing an eerie resemblance to one of the world’s most deadly pandemics — the so-called Spanish flu that killed approximately 50 million people worldwide, 675,000 in the United States alone.

Starting in 1918 and lasting until 1919, the H1N1 virus, known as the Spanish flu because it was mistakenly believed to have started in Spain, infected 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population, according to historic reports by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In October 1918, when Santa Rosa Junior College was a month old with a student body of 19, classes were suspended for several weeks. Other schools followed suit and by January 1919, when the pandemic was at its peak, the Sonoma County Board of Health ordered the closing of all places of amusement and entertainment and prohibited public gatherings of any nature. Red Cross pamphlets went out among the citizenry with instructions on how to make homemade protective masks. Funerals were limited to immediate relatives and close friends and merchants were instructed to wear face masks while serving the public. Out-of-work teachers filled their time preparing meals for sick patients at an emergency hospital at the Saturday Afternoon Clubhouse.

By February 1919, schools began to reopen. Death records show 175 persons died in Sonoma County in 1918 and 1919 with many others succumbing to later complications of pneumonia and tuberculosis.

Back then there were no drugs or vaccines available to treat the virus; the pandemic eventually petered out by 1919 when a number of the previously infected had built up an immunity.

Check out some of the images of the flu of 1918 in our gallery above.

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