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Long before coronavirus, Florida caught Spanish flu. How bad was it?

Half of Tampa’s cigar workers got sick. So did the mayor, fire chief and a third of the students at the University of Florida. “There was nothing science could do.”

As coronavirus cases spread across the world, so does global panic about the deadly outbreak. Some have even compared coronavirus to the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918.

While people should take precautions to protect themselves from the spread of coronavirus, it doesn’t approach the scale and toll of the pandemic that claimed 50 to 100 million lives more than a hundred years ago.

“The 1918 flu killed more Americans than all of our country’s wars in the 20th century combined," according to the Tampa Bay Times archives.

Spanish influenza came to Tampa Bay at the end of September 1918. A month later, the disease had killed 2,712 Floridians. The state lost a total of 4,000 that year, and thousands more weakened survivors would die from pneumonia.

“Playing no favorites, striking high and low, rich and poor, women and children alike, Spanish influenza is running rampant in Tampa, bringing with it sickness, suffering and death,” read a Tampa Times article from Oct. 19, 1918.

Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph operators during the Spanish influenza epidemic in Jacksonville, Florida. Nearly one-third of the city's residents contracted influenza, according to historian Gary Mormino. [ State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory (1918) ]

The Red Cross issued a call for women to volunteer as nurses. Tampa Electric transformed a car barn into a temporary hospital for sick streetcar workers. A tent hospital was opened near Hillsborough High School.

Today, there are modern hospitals, medicines and specialists to treat COVID-19 patients. But in 1918, health officials found themselves helpless, said historian Gary Mormino.

“There was nothing science could do,” he said. “A nurse who put cold presses on your head was more helpful than a physician.”

Ybor City and West Tampa were “perfect Petri dishes,” where people lived and worked in close quarters, Mormino said.

One of the hardest-hit groups were cigar factory workers, who sat for long hours bunched together in rows of small desks. Times archives say employees were ordered to wear gauze masks to “keep them from moistening fingers with their lips in order to twist the ends of cigars."

Interior view of the Cuesta Rey Cigar Company in Tampa, Florida. While this photo was taken in 1925, after the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, it shows how closely many Tampa cigar workers sat. [ State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory (1925) ]

Tampa Mayor D.B. McKay deputized members of the Rotary Club so they could arrest citizens that spat on sidewalks. The special police force also monitored cigar workers “to help stamp out this filthy habit,” keeping an eye out for those who hawked on factory floors. Manufacturers were ordered to sanitize their factories or risk being detained.

The precautions weren’t enough. Every few minutes, sick men walked out of the factories. Eventually, half of Tampa’s cigar workers fell ill. McKay and Tampa’s fire chief also got sick.

Coronavirus is especially dangerous for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. In contrast, Spanish influenza mostly threatened young adults.

“At one moment, fully one-third of the students at the University of Florida lay ill with the flu,” wrote Mormino in a 2019 essay published in the Florida Historical Quarterly. “... over seventy percent of Florida’s military casualties, from 1917 to 1918, resulted from disease, not German bullets.”

Children wear flu masks in Starke, Fla., during the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918. [ State Archives of Florida (1918) ]

“Probably the saddest group that was hit was the Seminole Indians," Mormino said. Only a few hundred had been living in the Everglades when the epidemic struck, and 10 died after being infected by hunters.

There were a few similarities between coronavirus and influenza. One was price gouging. Today, Amazon is trying to crack down on private sellers charging inflated rates for supplies like hand sanitizer. In 1918, The Hillsborough County Council of National defense investigated a Tampa druggist who sold a $6 anti-influenza serum for $55.

Related: Hand sanitizer frenzy has state officials monitoring price gouging

The other unifying factor: widespread fear. While today’s panic spreads on social media, anxiety set in for the people of 1918 as the board of health closed schools, soda fountains, churches and theaters for weeks.

By the time the worst of epidemic had passed in November 1918, a quarter of Hillsborough’s population had contracted the flu. Of over 20,000 people who fell sick, more than 500 died.

• • •

Tampa Bay Times coronavirus guide

Q&A: What you need to know after Florida’s first positive coronavirus cases.

PROTECT YOURSELF: Household cleaners can kill the virus on most surfaces, including your phone screen.

BE PREPARED: Guidelines for essentials to keep in your home should you have to stay inside.

FACE MASKS: They offer some protection, but studies debate their effectiveness.

WORKPLACE RISK: A list of five things employers could be doing to help curb the spread of the disease.

READER BEWARE: Look out for bad information as false claims are spreading online.

We’re working hard to bring you the latest news on coronavirus in Florida. This effort takes a lot of resources to gather and update. If you haven’t already subscribed, please consider buying a print or digital subscription.

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