With nearly a full year in the books since COVID-19 hit Minnesota, it’s abundantly clear that the pandemic has altered life in a way that few could have imagined.
Yet to an older generation of area residents, the tight restrictions implemented to stop the spread of the virus might not seem so novel after all. Just over 100 years ago, a similarly tight system of restrictions was implemented to stop another deadly disease.
The 1918 Flu pandemic was one of the most deadly events the world has ever seen. With approximately 500 million people, or one third of the world population, contracting the virus, death tolls dwarfed the current pandemic when adjusted for population growth.
At its peak, the 1918 virus reduced life expectancy by a staggering 12 years. In Minnesota, approximately 12,000 people died from the pandemic even though the state’s population is less than half of what it is today.
Journalist and author Curt Brown spent more than 30 years at newspapers in the Twin Cities as well as Fergus Falls. Named Minnesota Journalist of the Year in 2013, Brown retired to Colorado soon after but has continued to write a popular history column for the Star-Tribune. With the 100th anniversary of the pandemic approaching, Brown was asked by the Minnesota Historical Society to look into the pandemic, as well as the war and forest fires which devastated northern Minnesota in 1918, ravaging across 1,500 square miles of land.
The result of Brown’s work was his latest book “Minnesota, 1918: When Flu, Fire and War Ravaged the State.” Released to little fanfare in fall 2019, the book suddenly became much more popular, and Brown has since been asked to discuss it with regularity. Though significant commonalities exist, Brown says that in other ways the 1918 pandemic was different. Notably, the public health response to the pandemic was greatly hampered by a lack of understanding of the virus.
It would be 15 years before scientists even isolated a virus and began to study its properties. Nonetheless, Brown notes in his book that the Mayo Clinic, still run by the Mayo brothers, put great effort into trying to come up with a vaccine to end the pandemic.
The vaccine was the brainchild of Dr. Edward Rosenow, a celebrated research physician who the Mayos finally lured from Chicago to Rochester in 1915. A bacteriologist, Rosenow’s services came in particularly handy when the flu began to hit. After examining sputum samples coughed up by the hospital’s sick patients, Rosenow targeted streptococcus bacteria found in many cases and developed a three-dose vaccine designed to treat pneumonia that often killed flu patients as a secondary infection.
Rosenow initially conceded the vaccine’s efficacy was unclear and its premise experimental, but he was nonetheless inundated with interest by a desperate population. Soon he began citing studies claiming that it was wildly effective, preventing the large majority of cases.
Such claims were rebuffed by the American Medical Association, and subsequent examinations of the vaccine indeed found it to be useless. In a private letter to a Minneapolis doctor, Will Mayo described the vaccine’s value as “purely theoretical” and said he would not take it.
Nonetheless, the Mayos and Rosenow continued to promote the vaccine and it was circulated widely. With doctors desperate to get any treatment out the door, record keeping was poor and traditional scientific protocol largely abandoned.
Masking, circa 1918
Without an effective vaccine, Minnesota was left to rely heavily on disease mitigation strategies. In a recent episode of their show “Faribault 1855,” aired on Faribault Community Television, hosts Sam Temple and Logan Ledman dive into those restrictions. Ledman noted that unlike with the current pandemic, restrictions on public activity were implemented at the city level. After initially resisting the kind of tight restrictions put in place elsewhere, Faribault went into a tight lockdown in November 1918.
Under the citywide shutdown schools, libraries, churches, theaters and a variety of other businesses were closed. Stores and banks were only allowed limited hours of operation, with only six customers allowed in the door at one time.
One factor that differentiated the 1918 pandemic from most flu pandemics before and since was who it hit the hardest. COVID-19 isn’t particularly unusual in that it targets the elderly as well as immunocompromised individuals who are particularly vulnerable. By contrast, the 1918 pandemic hit hardest among the young and able bodied, resulting in carnage at campuses and within the military — though the virus didn’t succeed in pulling President Woodrow Wilson’s attention away from the war in Europe.
In the college city
Because of Minnesota’s demographics at the time, along with its large number of colleges and universities, Ledman said that the 1918 pandemic unleashed particular devastation at Minnesota — including at campuses here in Rice County.
“The fact that there were a lot of places that clustered young people together was a factor that negatively affected Minnesota,” he said.
While Ledman and Temple didn’t focus their episode on responses in other area communities, the Northfield Historical Society has a new online exhibit on the topic, courtesy of three Carleton College students enrolled in the Historians for Hire course.
Lea Winston, Sasha Mothershead and KatieRose Kimball relied heavily on the Northfield News archives for their research, along with the campus newspapers at both Carleton (the Carletonian) and St. Olaf (the Manitou Messenger).
While they didn’t respond to requests for an interview, Winston, Mothersehead and Kimball went through an exhaustive amount of material to piece together a story of what it was like to live through that bleak hour in Northfield’s history.
Due to spread in nearby communities, Northfield’s City Council ordered the closure of schools and churches at a special meeting on Oct. 10, 1918. That decision was reversed just a week later, with no spread yet in the city.
The flu soon made its way to Northfield and on Nov. 11, the city instituted a much tougher influenza ban. Not only were churches, schools and the library, along with other public spaces, closed, but public gatherings were forbidden altogether. Under the emergency Northfield ordinance, six people were allowed per 200 square feet of space in retail stores. Restaurants and lunch rooms could continue serving — but soft drinks, soda water and ice cream had to go.
By late November the situation had improved, but the lifting of restrictions didn’t begin until Dec. 12. Even so, schools would not reopen until after Christmas, and other restrictions remained in place until that time as well.
St. Olaf was hit much harder by the flu than Carleton, but the exact reasons for that aren’t clear, as both colleges implemented lockdowns that were largely similar. Five Oles died from the flu and many more sickened, while Carleton lost a professor, but no students.
Public reaction is documented by several newspaper articles from the era. According to the Northfield Independent, public support for the lockdowns were initially strong, with residents seeing it as patriotic and an extension of the war effort. When a second wave of the virus hit in early 1920, attitudes were more weary and skepticism more prominent. An article in the Independent openly questioned the efficacy of lockdowns — a striking contrast to public reaction to the first wave.
While the pandemic eventually receded, it left a significant legacy in Northfield and the nation. Interest in health science and disease prevention rose significantly, and may have even contributed to public support for construction of a new Northfield Hospital.
Yet even with all of the medical advances that have come about since, there is still much about the 1918 virus that is not well understood -—and the descendants of this deadliest of viruses have continued to haunt humanity for decades.
A proposed project that could improve traffic safety at the I-35/Hwy. 19 interchange has hit a speed bump, but Rice County Engineer Dennis Luebbe is confident that the project remains on track.
In December, the county was awarded $1.1 million for the planned roundabout, to be located just east of the interstate, through the federally funded but state administered Minnesota Highway Freight Program. In addition, the county was able to secure $900,000 through the state’s Local Partnership program. With the two grants under its belt, the county was roughly two-thirds of the way toward meeting its funding goal. However, the County found out earlier this month that its request for $700,000 from the Department of Employment and Economic Development program wasn’t successful.
That decision wasn’t a total surprise. With only $1.85 million and any county outside of the seven-county metro able to apply, Luebbe noted Rice County would be “hard pressed” to secure those dollars.
Notably, the Minnesota Department of Transportation could have opted to provide just a portion of the county’s request rather than the full amount. However, MnDOT instead decided to support other projects with those limited dollars.
Luebbe says he hasn’t asked MnDOT for the reasons behind the project’s rejection. However, he told Commissioner Jim Purfeerst that he was surprised at some of the projects that managed to “leapfrog” Rice County’s.
In March, the county will find out if its application for $400,000 in funding from the Highway Safety Improvement Funding program has been successful. That pot of money is slightly larger at $2.3 million, and reserved for the 11 counties in MnDOT’s in southeast Minnesota’s District 6 which includes Rice and Steele counties. Without that $700,000 from MnDOT, Luebbe said the county will instead have to prepare for a funding shortfall. However, he expressed optimism that the county will in the end be able to secure the funding it needs through construction dollars allocated to District 6.
Luebbe noted that the precise size of that funding shortfall is still murky not only due to the outstanding grant request, but because estimates of the total project cost remain uncertain until a comprehensive, site-specific plan is completed.
The county is conducting the comprehensive analysis and expects it to be completed by the summer. Approximately two-thirds of the $100,000 review was funded by MnDOT; the remainder by the county.
The board had hoped to limit its investment in the project to about 10% of the total project cost, but rather than fund the project itself, MnDOT encouraged the county to apply for dollars through competitive grant programs. Whether that would actually work was a source of concern for the board. As Commissioner Galen Malecha noted, the limited availability of highway dollars has forced some local government entities to try to fund important projects themselves.
Still, commissioners attempted to plow ahead because the project has long been a priority. After years of discussion with MnDOT and even influential legislators, MnDOT finally initiated and funded a traffic study which found a roundabout to be the best and safest solution.
The west side of the intersection, near the Flying J Travel Center, MnDOT salt shed, and park and ride lot, has had a traffic signal for about a decade. But the eastern portion, where the roundabout would go, is often backed up for northbound motorists exiting the interstate and wanting to head west.
Traffic has increased substantially since Pilot Corporation bought the Flying J and expanded it, becoming so bad that Commissioner Jeff Docken quipped that motorists looking to turn left at peak times might now want to “pack a lunch.”
A total of six exit and entrance ramps would be included in the proposed roundabout, enabling easy access to and from I-35, Hwy 19 and several frontage roads near sites eyed for economic development.
If the county is quickly able to secure funding and everything else goes according to plan, the project could start as early as 2022. However, Luebbe suggested that the time needed to complete the design and advertise the project might push actual construction back to 2023.
School districts in Northfield, Faribault and Owatonna are expressing a willingness to keep remote learning available in at least some instances.
In noting that the application process will take several months, Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann said online learning allows the district to provide content for students who don’t attend school at Northfield Public Schools or those who want to take either an exclusive online offering or a few classes. Hillmann said many students are excited to return to in-person classes, but there are others who want to continue learning online or desire instruction take place both inside and outside of a physical classroom.
Online classes are also expected to allow Northfield Public Schools to begin offering courses not previously offered due to lack of student interest.
Hillmann sees online learning as becoming a recruitment tool for Northfield Public Schools and allowing students whose parent is a professor at St. Olaf or Carleton to continue taking classes if their parent’s work takes them out of the area.
Though districts were required to offer an online-only option this year due to COVID-19, Hillmann noted that the directive is not expected to be permanent. K-5 students are learning through videoconferencing and assignments under the direction of a Northfield Public Schools teacher. Sixth through 12th graders are also being coached by an NPS teacher and using the online curriculum Odysseyware. Tutoring is available.
Hillmann said the plan comes after administrators realized that the challenges they faced over the past 10 months could result in some positive changes to support students. He added that he wanted to have a full semester of online learning to get a better idea of what worked.
Northfield Public Schools has more than 500 students who are involved with the online-only program during COVID-19, titled Portage. Hillmann spoke highly of how well the district’s teachers have done in leading Portage teams.
Hillmann said “a high percentage” of the students learning exclusively online chose that option to limit exposure to the virus, adding that approximately 100 students are returning to hybrid learning because they now feel more comfortable with the protocols officials say are needed to ensure staff and students safety. Northfield Public Schools preschoolers and K-2 students have returned to in-person learning, with older elementary schoolers expected in the hybrid option by early February.‘It’s the right move’
In noting Owatonna Public Schools submitted its application for certification last week, Superintendent Jeff Elstad said some families might want to pursue the option in the future. He noted “a handful” have reported finding their stride with online learning and found that distance learning has helped meet their needs. Elstad added the Department of Education has informed him that the application process should take about 90 days.
Once that process is finalized, he anticipates coming back to the School Board and recommending a more detailed rollout plan. Some options include allowing for students to take a mix of online and in-person classes. In the past, students who have opted for privatized learning have not been allowed to participate in school activities.
“It’s the right move for us,” he said of submitting the application.
FPS hoping online option available in fall
Faribault Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker said the district is applying for online learning certification for the fall. He anticipates online learning will allow for homeschooled students to opt into district courses and for the offering to include either an out-of-district staff member or someone who is employed through the district.
Sesker, who noted that “a large group of parents and students” have expressed a desire to return to in-person learning, said survey results of the recent stretch of exclusively online learning will be announced during a Feb. 22 School Board meeting.