Tuesday, March 17, 2020

What happened when a small Colo. town tried to isolate itself during 1918 flu pandemic; N.C. county limits access

Dare County is in yellow.
UPDATE, 5 p.m.: Dare County, North Carolina, a major tourist destination "faced with an unexpected influx of visitors — including some drawn by special 'coronacation' deals offered by local vacation rental companies — restricted access as of 2 p.m. Tuesday," The Charlotte Observer reports. Access will be limited the way it is before and after a hurricane."

Living in a rural area means the coronavirus will likely arrive later, but once it hits, getting treatment will be more difficult. And it's almost impossible for a small town to protect itself from a pandemic, but some have tried it, according to experts like Alex Navarro, a medical historian at the University of Michigan's Center for the History of Medicine, who studied the Spanish flu pandemic for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Remote rural towns are a good place to be early in a pandemic, as they tend to be more spread out, which potentially means fewer chances to catch a bug," Frank Morris reports for NPR. "Remote rural areas are also, by definition, way removed from major seaports, airports and often even big highways. So it generally takes longer for new viruses to show up in tiny towns."

A clip from the Gunnison News-Champion,
the local paper in 1918. (History Colorado)
However, while the most rural towns don't get many visitors, residents drive to larger cities frequently and can bring back the virus. That's likely how the illness will spread to very small towns, said Andy Pekosz, a molecular microbiology and immunology professor at Johns Hopkins University: "I think it's just a matter of time," he told Morris.

There are very few exceptions. Gunnison County, Colorado, was one such exception during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1917-1918. For four months, the county and its eponymous town "literally barricaded the roads and forced everyone who did come into town into quarantine," Navarro told Morris.

According to Navarro's research, the local newspaper at the time, the Gunnison News-Champion, frequently published articles to keep the public informed, Allison Sylte reports for KUSA-TV in Denver.

The plan worked as long as the county stayed isolated. At the height of the pandemic, only two died from the Spanish flu in Gunnison, and both were in quarantine. But when the town ended its shutdown, more than 100 people got the flu and several died, Navarro told Morris.

Gunnison County, Colorado
(Wikipedia map)
Gunnison is still rural these days, with about 15,000 residents. There were seven confirmed covid-19 cases in the county as of March 16, the third-highest rate of infection in the state, Nancy Lofholm reports for The Colorado Sun.

Though the county is not barricading itself this time around, county leaders are taking steps to contain the virus's spread: on Monday they closed all hotels and resorts, outlawed all in-person retail transactions except for groceries and other necessities, and banned public gatherings of more than 10 people. Bars and restaurants can stay open as long as they don't allow more than 50 people at a time, but customers age 60 and up are banned from such venues, as they are the most at-risk population, the Crested Butte News reports.

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