Comparison of Spanish flu to COVID-19 in Santa Clara County


San Jose Historical photo archive

Masked employees of the San Jose Rubber Works during the influenza epidemic of 1918

The COVID-19 strain discovered in late 2019 has run rampant across the world, causing a pandemic on a scale that hasn’t been seen in a century. More than 100 years ago, a strain of influenza commonly known as the Spanish Flu caused an estimated total of 50 million deaths, more than twice as many deaths as the concurrent World War 1. This pandemic infected many all across America, including Santa Clara County, where many precautions were taken similar to those of the current pandemic such as wearing masks and outdoor meetings only. 

On October 18th of 1918, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors advised the closure of all schools, movie theaters and places of worship due to the virus sweeping across the nation. On that same day, the Sunnyvale Health Commissioner gave a similar statement. In places such as San Jose, masks were required, while Sunnyvale found it unnecessary to mandate masks since there were not large crowds in the streets. Similarly to the COVID-19 pandemic, there were times when it was thought that the Spanish Flu pandemic was “waning”, only for it to come back. 

The newspapers were filled with obituaries dedicated to people who had suffered from influenza, including many young and middle aged people. One notable Sunnyvale resident who was a victim of the virus was 30 year old fire chief Ray Matthew McGinnis. The Spanish Flu virus was very deadly especially due to the lack of advanced medical care and had approximately a 10% death rate, much worse than COVID-19. However, the response was very similar since they are both airborne viruses with masks being the common solution in both cases. Hardly anyone who lived through the influenza pandemic is alive during the COVID pandemic, but it is still important to know history and try to prevent it from repeating itself in detrimental ways.