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A Murray flu outbreak like no other

Feb 01, 2018 11:22AM ● Published by Shaun Delliskave

Gallery: Flu outbreak [2 Images] Click any image to expand.

Though this winter’s version of the flu is particularly virulent, it pales in comparison to the historic Spanish flu that once ravaged Murray. This year marks the centennial of when the world and Murray went through a pandemic that sickened 500 million people and killed, at most, an estimated 100 million people—the single most deadly event in human history. In fact, the United States’ life expectancy rate dropped by 12 years in 1918.

Murray in 1918 was experiencing a heyday. World War I had created a demand for steel, and Murray’s smelters could hardly keep up with the demand. Labor shortages were common since men were off to war, and new workers were recruited throughout the country.

The city was also sending servicemen off to the frontline in Europe at the Murray train depot on 4800 South. What Murrayites did not know was that they were also welcoming the H1N1 virus brought into the community by visitors and soldiers exposed to the disease. With soldiers living in close quarters, the contagion spread like wildfire as the infected traveled to other bases or returned home.

The outbreak was first noticed in the spring of 1918 in war-torn Europe. American war censors forbade newspapers from reporting it at home, fearing that it would deflate the nation’s morale. But they did allow newspapers to report its impact on neutral Spain, thus giving it the name of the Spanish flu. 

One of the first instances reported in the media of a Murrayite contracting the Spanish flu appeared in the Salt Lake Herald on October 11. “A Murray man attended a Salt Lake theatre and within forty-eight hours after his return home he and four other members of his family were attacked.” Subsequently, all theatres in Utah were shut down to lessen exposure in crowds; this order soon progressed to churches, schools, and all public gatherings.

The pandemic was explosive. Newspapers reported that Murray was one of only 13 affected communities in Utah on October 5 but one of 95 by October 17. 

Murray Mayor Norman Erekson ordered masks to be worn when riding streetcars or going to city hall. The Salt Lake Telegram on December 6 reported, “Health officers have been stationed at Vine Street, a point midway between Murray and Salt Lake… [to ensure that streetcars] carry only the limited number of passengers. Every person on these cars beginning today will be compelled to wear influenza masks. Although the masks do not have to be worn on the streets of Murray, they must be donned upon entering all buildings.”

As hospital beds became full, the Murray branch of the American Red Cross opened the Commercial Hall (5010 State Street) building as an emergency hospital. Murrayites with even so much as a head cold were quarantined at home. Teachers were recruited to volunteer as nurses. Those who recovered from the flu were also pressed into aiding others with the disease.

In a tragic story reported by The Salt Lake Telegram, “Mrs. Mary Draper of Murray left her home and family nearly two weeks ago upon receiving a message that her mother was ill in Richmond. Soon after her absence her husband, William Draper, died of influenza and the little daughter soon followed. The three girls were stricken suddenly and rushed to the Red Cross hospital. During all this time telegraph messages were being sent out in an effort to find the mother.” Mrs. Draper was eventually found and her twin daughters did survive.

The pandemic subsided by the spring of 1919 and the exact death toll in Murray is not available. Where the Commercial Hall sat, now sits the sprawling Intermountain Medical Center. The Murray LDS First Ward’s practice of using individual sacrament cups instead of a common goblet became standard practice for the entire LDS Church afterward. Vaccinations have done much to stave off epidemics, but as made evident by the whooping cough outbreak at Murray’s American International School of Utah last year, there is still room to improve.

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