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2 cities handled this health crisis different. The results couldn’t have been more opposite.

Philadelphia, St. Louis had different approaches to social distancing during Spanish flu

In September 1918, Philadelphia held a planned Liberty Loan Parade to promote the government bonds that were being issued to pay for World War I. But the parade took place when the pandemic commonly called the "Spanish flu" -- the H1N1 virus -- arrived in the city of 1.7 million people.
In September 1918, Philadelphia held a planned Liberty Loan Parade to promote the government bonds that were being issued to pay for World War I. But the parade took place when the pandemic commonly called the "Spanish flu" -- the H1N1 virus -- arrived in the city of 1.7 million people. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

With all due respect to Charles Dickens, this is a tale of how two cities handled a health crisis via social distancing, with opposite results.

Back in 1918 when the Spanish flu was plaguing the entire country, Philadelphia and St. Louis had two different approaches to the disease, according to a 2007 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In an effort to boost morale for the war and also to sell bonds, the city of Philadelphia threw a parade that drew 200,000 people, despite warnings that the Spanish flu was spreading among the soldiers who were about to head off to World War I and would be in the parade.

That didn’t turn out to be a good idea.

Days later, hospitals in the area were filled with patients suffering or dying from the Spanish flu.

Weeks later, more than 4,500 people in the Philadelphia area died from the virus.

On the other side of the ledger, things were way different in St. Louis.

After detecting its first cases of the Spanish flu in the community, St. Louis closed buildings such as schools, churches, courtrooms and libraries.

Gatherings of more than 20 people were banned, work shifts were staggered and ridership on streetcars was limited.

The social distancing precautions had a positive effect, as excess deaths in St. Louis were 347 per 100,000 people -- less than half the rate of Philadelphia.

The Spanish flu was nothing to mess around with, since ultimately, an estimated 20 to 50 million people died after contracting the virus.

With all the social distance efforts going on around the country, St. Louis -- even more than 100 years ago -- is proof why it can be so vital in saving lives.


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