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San Francisco was one of the success stories of fighting COVID-19, but history from 100 years ago is repeating itself

san francisco coronavirus cases 1918 flu
Photo via Mark Gunn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Not only was California one of the early success stories when it came to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, but the city of San Francisco’s coronavirus response was exemplary. The northern California city locked down early in the pandemic, and people, for the most part, wore masks.

But just like the Golden State itself, San Francisco’s statistics have begun to worsen lately, and as noted by the Washington Post, the Bay Area coronavirus case load is beginning to surge. In mid-June, the city was seeing an average of 217 new cases a day. Six weeks later, that number has risen to 877.

“Many people who live here say they are worn out—that a hermitlike existence is impossible for months on end,” the Post’s Heather Kelly and Rachel Lerman wrote. “Tired of being stuck at home, friends and families are starting to gather again, and some parents are letting their children use still-closed playgrounds, ducking under the caution tape that has been wrapped around jungle gyms since March.”

Interviewees told the newspaper that more people are out in public and less are locking themselves down and that residents, simply put, are more complacent and more relaxed.

This storyline isn’t necessarily uncommon for San Francisco residents. In fact, it happened more than 100 years ago during the 1918 flu pandemic.

In 1919, San Francisco was one of the success stories of the H1N1 flu outbreak. The first two waves of the virus had been kept in check because city leaders and residents had been vigilant. The decision to quarantine early, to close schools, and to ban public gatherings allowed the city to keep its death numbers low. The culture of wearing masks was embraced, and people believed the face coverings were effective in stopping the virus’ transmission (experts later said social distancing was much more important in those days than mask-wearing).

But by the time of the third wave of the pandemic, residents had grown tired of locking themselves inside and covering their faces. In November 1918, the city stopped mandating that people were masks (originally, you were fined $5 if you were caught without one), and the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “After four weeks of muzzled misery, San Francisco unmasked at noon yesterday and ventured to draw its breath. Despite the published prayers of the Health Department for conservation of gauze, the sidewalks and runnels were strewn with the relics of a torturous month.”  

That’s when flu virus cases shot up, and thousands of people in the city began to die. Smithsonian wrote that if the city had been as vigilant in the third wave of the pandemic in the spring of 1919 as it was in the first and second waves, deaths in San Francisco would have been reduced by 90%.

Now, a photo taken at Dolores Park in San Francisco on Aug. 1, 2020, where people gathered close by and not everybody was wearing a mask, has some on edge. As Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease doctor at the University of California-San Francisco, told SF Gate, the scene was “as scary as American Horror story, the COVID version.”

Sources: Washington Post, History, San Francisco Chronicle, Smithsonian, SF Gate


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