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Newsletter: Pandemic Parallels

Pandemic Parallels: A Look Back at the 1918 Influenza Through the Lens of 2020

by Kate Johnson (Archival Assistant, UNC Archives & Special Collections)

On Friday, September 27, 1918, a minor headline appeared on page one of the Greeley Tribune announcing influenza had arrived in town. The article indicated that the city physician, Dr. Florence Fezer, had reported two patients showing symptoms of the disease sometimes referred to as “Spanish Flu.”[1] That same day, Denver reported its first flu related death, and Denver city health manager, Dr. William H. Sharpley, issued recommendations to Denver’s citizens to avoid needless overcrowding and to cover their coughs and sneezes.[2] Locals had been reading about the spread of cases in other parts of the world before the first cases showed up in Colorado, but these updates were largely overshadowed by the headlines reporting on World War I.

Cases increased quickly, and on October 6 the Denver mayor closed all schools, churches, theaters, and other public places.[3] The city of Loveland followed suit on October 7 with the admonishment to “Cover up each cough and sneeze, if you don’t you’ll spread disease!”[4] The following day, on October 8, Greeley’s City Council announced its decision to close public places, though the Red Cross room at the Court House was allowed to remain open, so volunteers could continue to make protection masks for the army hospital.[5] Fort Collins joined ranks announcing its closings on October 11.[6]

The campus quarantine regulations, as printed in the Greeley Tribune on October 29, 1918

Campus quarantine regulations, as printed in the Greeley Tribune, October 29, 1918

An image from the campus lockdown from the 1919 Cache la Poudre yearbook

An image from the campus lockdown from the 1919 Cache la Poudre yearbook

The escalation of events of the 1918 influenza pandemic sounds eerily familiar in 2020 as we continue to reel from and grapple with the rise of the Coronavirus pandemic. Looking back into the events of 1918 and viewing them through the lens of our current moment offers a journey of surprising, and at times amusing, similarities as well as fundamental differences, all underscored by the unfortunate loss of life from these diseases.

Decisive Action

When the Greeley City Council and much of Colorado moved to shut down public places, the president of Colorado State Teachers College (or CTC, as UNC was then known), John G. Crabbe, acted quickly and decisively. Arguing that for the students, “It is safer for them to be kept here than to be allowed to scatter to their homes and come back in a couple of weeks,” he went before the State Board of Health and convinced them to allow CTC to remain open under a strict plan of quarantine.[7] For 63 days, from October 9 to December 11, 1918, campus was closed to outsiders, and students were not permitted to go downtown without a special pass.[8] The high school and elementary school attached to the college were closed, but college courses continued at CTC, one of only two colleges in the state to remain open.

New Normal

The staff from the K-12 schools were reassigned to three forces. The Library Police oversaw class conditions, making sure classrooms were kept clean, the windows remained open to bring in fresh air, and no more than 50 students were allowed in the library at a time.[9] The Sanitary Police, made up of 26 inspectors, visited the rooming house of every student to check on their health and inspect conditions for bi-weekly reports posted to campus. If a student exhibited common cold symptoms, a doctor was called. If flu symptoms, the student was immediately moved to an isolation camp where a matron and nurse presided.

An advertisement from the Greeley Tribune, October 11, 1918
An advertisement from the Greeley Tribune, October 11, 1918

The Tribune also noted that inspectors double-checked with the rooming house hostesses concerning students’ health, presumably to ensure they did not miss students who perhaps tried to hide their symptoms to avoid going to the “detention camp.”[10] The final force was the Military Police who oversaw the cadets in the officer training program on campus and patrolled for any students attempting to sneak downtown without a pass.[11] Fortunately for the homebound students, local businesses began offering delivery for those unable to come to their stores.

Unprecedented Times
There were some missteps along the way. Early in the quarantine, the CTC football team traveled to Fort Collins to play against the Aggies, which understandably upset Greeley city officials who thought it did not fit with the “strict quarantine.” Further intercollegiate sporting events were cancelled, as were most extracurriculars. When the Armistice ended the war on November 11, all the students, faculty, and cadets broke quarantine to celebrate with the city in a “gigantic parade with practically every automobile in Greeley in line.”[12] Despite these infractions, the college only experienced 58 cases of the flu out of a campus population of about 600, and only a single case resulted in death. During the same period, Greeley reported a total of 2,200 cases in the city of 10,000 and a much higher death toll, particularly in the smaller surrounding communities.[13]

Reflections from 2020
In March of 2020, as COVID-19 grew from an overseas problem to an immediate concern, President Andy Feinstein and the campus community followed in UNC’s historical legacy by adapting swiftly and continuing to adapt as the situation rapidly evolved. Initial plans to have courses online for two weeks after spring break had to be altered a mere five days after being announced and changed to courses being delivered remotely for the rest of the semester. With modern technology, classes have continued in the crisis while many students and faculty remain at home. For those still on campus, procedures have changed with limited capacity in the dining halls and increased meal take-out. We may not have created COVID-19 police forces, but during the lockdown housing staff conducted daily check-ins with those still in the residence halls; we have a residence hall set aside for students who need to isolate; and Libraries staff have increased cleanings of our classrooms and student study areas. Now, as CTC did before, we have pulled together as a campus community and implemented procedures, sometimes through trial and error, to keep each other safe while continuing our work.

You can learn more about UNC and the 1918 influenza pandemic at:

Photos of the Pandemic Parallels display outside the Archives Department in Michener Library
Photos of the Pandemic Parallels display outside the Archives Department in Michener Library

[1] “Say Influenza is in Greeley,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and Greeley Republican, September 27, 1918, 1.

[2] “Denver and the 1918 Influenza Pandemic,” The American Influenza Epidemic of 1918-1919: A Digital Encyclopedia, accessed November 11, 2020,

[3] Influenza Digital Encyclopedia, “Denver the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.”

[4] “Public Meetings Barred Account Spanish ‘Flu’,” Loveland Reporter, October 7, 1918, 1.

[5] “City Council Takes Steps to Stop Spreading of Influenza,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and The Greeley Republican, October 8, 1918, 1.

[6] “Fort Collins Closes all Public Places,” The Tribune-Republican, Greeley, October 12, 1918, 2.

[7] “College Notes,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and Greeley Republican, October 10, 1918, 4.

[8] “Greeley City Council Lifts Ban on College Community Coming to Town,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and Greeley Republican, December 11, 1918, 1.

[9] “College Notes,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and Greeley Republican, October 10, 1918, 4.

[10] “C.T.C. Health Makes Almost Perfect Score,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and Greeley Republican, October 25, 1918, 1.

[11] Robert W. Larson, Shaping Educational Change: The First Century of the University of Northern Colorado (Boulder, CO: Colorado Associated University Press, 1989), 108.

[12] “President Wilson Reads Foch Demand at a Joint Session of Congress,” November 11, 1918, 1.

[13] “Flu Regulation at College May be Informative,” The Greeley Daily Tribune and Greeley Republican, December 19, 1918, 1.