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Trail Blazers: Yes, masks were mandated 105 years ago

Trail Blazers is a weekly feature in partnership with the Trail Museum and Archives

Anyone choosing to get a flu and/or COVID shot from a public clinic this year is asked to wear a mask.

This reinstated mask mandate came down from the province in October; in short, health-care staff and visitors to any health authority owned facility are required to mask up.

This protocol is a reminder of the mask mandate that came down during the height of the COVID pandemic — a first exposure to the practice of mask-wearing for many — but for historians?

Not so much.

Because the truth is, masks were mandated over 100 years before — when the Spanish flu came riding into Canadian towns on the backs of First World War soldiers.

So this week’s Trail Blazers from Sarah Benson-Lord is particularly timely given the 2023 mask reinstatement and Remembrance Day services held across the country on Saturday. While she can provide context to masks and the 1918 pandemic, one can only wonder if there was societal push back — and police arresting non-mask wearers — like what happened between Aug. 2021 and when the COVID mandate ended in March 2022.

Benson-Lord starts on the heels of armistice, November 1918.

by Sarah Benson-Lord

Trail Museum and Archives

While the end of the war was most welcome by nations across the western world, most were also experiencing a global pandemic known then as the Spanish Flu.

Diving through the 1918 Trail News was a lofty challenge when researching the local impact. The first thing to keep in mind was the inevitable lack of reporting on the virus. As it was the fourth year of the war, the press was consciously censoring items of news that could negatively affect an already gloomy home front.

Globally, the first published reports of a new flu-like virus came in May 1918 from Valencia, Spain. Spain was a neutral party in the First World War, which meant its citizens were somewhat removed from the daily anxiety of battles and death counts. The term “Spanish Influenza” gained traction, but Spain was certainly not ground zero, merely the first country to publish reports.

Cases of this new illness were actually recorded as early as January 1918 in Kansas among farmers, spreading to a nearby military base. Cases were also noted among soldiers in England and France in the spring, as well as in China. The early half of 1918 was deemed the “first wave,” but few statistics were gathered simply because it was not required.

The “second wave,” which hit B.C. and Trail in the summer and fall, was actively studied, mainly by the US military, as global movements and wartime conditions were perfect for transmission.

There was a lot going on in Trail in the fall of 1918.

In September, the city experienced a bout of diphtheria which saw the closure of schools for one week. Early October saw a few reports of typhoid.

Then, finally, on Oct. 11, 1918, the first ever mention of the new disease sweeping the globe was published at the request of the city’s Medical Health Officer, tucked away on the fifth page.

The article, entitled, “Practical Advice On Arrest and Control of Influenza” circulated by the U.S. Surgeon General, described the virus as one with a quick incubation (about 2 days), caused by secretions from the nose, throat and airways of infected carriers from both direct and indirect contact.

Masks were recommended and crowds and gatherings were discouraged. Also, “promiscuous coughing and spitting” was deemed highly dangerous.

On Monday, Oct. 21, Trail City Council was made aware of the first case in Trail and resolved that all places of public assembly be immediately closed.

This included all forms of entertainment, schools, churches and other places of public worship, and meetings, save for council meetings. By Friday, Oct. 25, Trail had 20 cases.

Rossland and Nelson were hit hard and many residents believed the presence of smelter smoke in Trail actually reduced the possibility of transmission down here.

But, by Nov. 1, Trail’s doctors were reporting 200 cases.

By this point, advertising began to respond to the growing case numbers. Pharmacists, like E.W. Hazlewood, were pushing the new fever relief Aspirin, cinnamon and eucalyptus oils, grippe tablets, and even Listerine as effective cure-alls, none of which were.

Insurance agents took the opportunity to include the “Spanish Flu” in their illness and life insurance policies.

Business was probably booming for these trades.

Medical personnel was in short supply. Trail doctors Nay and Thom worked tirelessly, supplementing the current hospital with three makeshift medical sites in the Aldridge Hotel (location of the old C.S. Williams Clinic), the Montana Hotel (location of Piazza Colombo in the Gulch), and the Central Hotel (northeast corner of Bay and Eldorado).

Calls for local nurse volunteers, as well as recruitment for medical professionals, were frequent.

CM&S (now Teck Trail) offered Trail’s medical staff use of the company ambulance and installed a range and phone line in the Aldridge. The ladies of the Red Cross, already exhausted from intense wartime efforts, established a diet kitchen, creating and delivering 1,450 healthy meals to the more destitute households.

CM&S even sent several oxygen tanks to Nelson, where Mayor McQuarrie was stricken with the flu.

He didn’t make it.

November was by far the most devastating month for the small city of 4,000. Doctors estimated over 1,000 cases at the end of November since the onset in mid-October.

After 59 deaths in November alone, council instated a mandatory mask policy when out of the home. All peace celebrations commemorating the end of the war were postponed to the new year.

Trail’s two doctors and recruited nursing staff were exhausted, but offered in-home care to anyone who required it.

By mid-December, the makeshift hospitals had reverted back hotels and the diet kitchen closed, but the general fear was “lifting the lid” too soon.

This was a touchy subject and, as we experienced during our numerous health orders, opinions on treatments, restrictions, and mask efficiency were hotly debated. Finally showing a decrease in cases over a seven-day period, and just in time for Christmas, the public ban on gatherings (except dances) was lifted on Sunday, Dec. 22.

Throughout the chaos, the Trail Times and its editor were steadfast in continuing to report the usual local news, the trivial and the mundane, and were very conscious not to focus solely on war news (save the push to purchase Victory Bonds) or the flu.

Trail, like every other city across the country, had been through enough.

They’d donated enough, they’d volunteered enough, and they’d despaired enough.

The newspaper was an escape of censored positivity, rightly or wrongly.

In all, British Columbia reported 2,014 deaths between October and December 1918, and the death rate climbed into 1919, although much more slowly.

Trail reported 66 deaths for the same time period, affecting toddlers to seniors. In the five weeks that proved the deadliest, more people died in Trail from the flu than Trail soldiers who died in the First World War.

A few more deaths were published in the early weeks of 1919, however no formal report was published on the overall death toll.

Read more: Ceremony honours Trail airman, 17, and 22 others killed in Second World War

Read more: Remembering a young man from Trail who went to war and never came home

Read more: Keepers of history: Trail Legion remembers every day

Read more: Long-lost poem recounts life of an air gunner

Read more: ‘Hero Trail’ poem honours warship named after the City of Trail

Sheri Regnier

About the Author: Sheri Regnier

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