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Brokaw Mentions Norbeck’s Robust 1918 Pandemic Response

In a commentary this morning on MSNBC, Tom Brokaw says that South Dakota Governor Peter Norbeck saved many lives during the influenza epidemic of 1918 by shutting down “the entire state, including the business districts of the two largest cities,” while today’s Governor refuses to take any such actions against a pandemic that is worse that any natural disaster South Dakota has faced:

A 2005 article from the South Dakota State Historical Society describes the actions Norbeck’s State Board of Health took to fight the surging 1918 pandemic with its October 16, 1918, shutdown order:

Throughout the state, churches, theatres, schools, pool halls, parlors and other public gathering places were closed indefinitely. The flu escalated to the point that the superintendent of the South Dakota Board of Health declared that, “In any community where the disease is prevalent, public gatherings of all kinds are forbidden.” Individuals who had any symptoms of the flu were asked to refrain from public gatherings of any kind. Public drinking cups and towels were prohibited. People were forbidden to congregate at train depots, requiring patrons to buy their train tickets one person at a time.

The Red Cross was also employed to “supplying nursing personnel, nursing supplies, and performing such other duties as the public health officer shall call on them to do.” The University of South Dakota closed its doors in mid-October to stall the spread of the flu. In Rapid City, the mayor decreed that all funerals must be conducted in the “open air,” to prevent the spread of the flu at funerals. Finally, in some cities a doctor’s note was required as proof that you had fully recovered from the flu, thus allowing you to walk in public.

“It would be safe to say that the state went through a period of organized chaos,” Reitzel said. “Civic officials were trying any and every means necessary to end the spread of the flu” [Matthew T. Reitzel, South Dakota State Historical Society, “1918 Flu Pandemic in South Dakota Remembered,” not dated, but refers to 1918 epidemic taking place “87 years ago,” so assume publication 2005].

While current elected officials wring their hands over the supposed impossibility of enforcing mask wearing and other public health measures, our great-grandparents had no trouble laying down the law to protect lives from cooties:

One of the best examples was in Rapid City. The Home Guard (the equivalent of today’s National Guard) roamed through the streets of Rapid City, fining and arresting people who were not abiding by the cities newly created “sanitation laws.” City residence were fined or arrested for “expectorating” (spitting) on the sidewalks of Rapid City. As the local paper noted, “The Guard will be out in full force today to see that there is no breaking of the quarantine regulations.” On October 27, 1918, one Rapid City man was charged with “flagrant violation of the anti-spitting ordinance.” Even a Rapid City police officer was arrested by the Home Guard for violating the anti-spitting ordinance and paid the customary fine of $6 [Reitzel, 2005].

Reitzel notes that Governor Norbeck still got the flu in late November in Wyoming (Governor! Stay safe and stay home!) and was laid up in the hospital in Deadwood for a few days. Governor Norbeck survived, but 1,847 South Dakotans died of the 1918 influenza outbreak in just the last three months of that year. That’s a notably higher death count and per-population rate than we are experiencing now under coronavirus… but we also have a century of medical new medical knowledge and practice under our belts.

But somehow, South Dakota’s governor a century ago and leaders elsewhere in 1918 America had the sense to shut down public gatherings and prevent a worse death toll.


  1. First mate smee 2020-11-25 21:09

    It looks like common sense went out the window after 1918. By the way I talked with God last night and I asked what he or her thought about South Dakota and he or she said I don’t know what to think, I’VE NEVER BEEN THERE.

  2. grudznick 2020-11-25 22:11

    There is no god, which is good because we don’t want him here. On a side note, the rumors are swirling that the minions of Mr. Ravnsborg are starting to burrow in, digging into hidy-holes of state government where they can keep on when Mr. Ravnsborg’s head rolls. One must wonder if these minions or of the overgodding sort, insaner than most, or deep-staters.

  3. happy camper 2020-11-26 06:42

    This virus is simply not as deadly as the Spanish Flu. Noem could set an example of caution and good judgment, but she’s doing the opposite. Lindsey Graham said 80% of the people in Washington would sell out their mother to keep their jobs, like he went on to do. The same thing happens everywhere though when people sense relationships are a liability, unless they’re family, they almost always distance themselves out of self preservation. Politics aside, Ravnsborg deserves to be treated just as fairly as anyone else.

  4. jerry 2020-11-26 08:24

    Stop that dude. This virus is every bit as deadly as the Spanish Flu. We are just living in a more advanced world where there are some treatments available that work…if ya got the money. This virus is just as deadly and it’s numbers have not even been finished yet. We don’t know how long this virus was percolating in human kind until we “discovered” it in China. This virus was already making it’s debut in the Italy and Spain before that, so say the sanitation tests.

  5. leslie 2020-11-26 08:37

    We also don’t know the full nefariousness Noem is up to keeping Jason in the Trumpism fold with his elector status; his amicus status before SCOTUS, and now this camouflage poison pill her legislature will act on by “Arthur Taylor” amending the SD

    Trump and Noem are still in office, dude.

  6. jerry 2020-11-26 09:07

    “It took just 17 days to go from 50 million cases to 60 million, compared with the 21 days it took to go from 40 million to 50 million. Around 580,000 cases have been reported each day over the past week and around half of all cases since the start of the pandemic were reported over the past 70 days.
    In Europe, 1 million new cases were recorded over just five days, for a total of more than 16 million cases, including 365,000 deaths.
    The global death toll has passed 1.4 million and the US has the highest tally with more than 262,000 deaths.”

    Spanish Flu: “Lasting from February 1918 to April 1920, it infected 500 million people-about a third of the world’s population at the time-in four successive waves.”

    We don’t even have a year in yet. Here is how the two killers are alike

  7. bearcreekbat 2020-11-26 09:23

    I too question both the accuracy and relevence of the idea that “This virus is simply not as deadly as the Spanish Flu,” (which I have heard from more than one person attempting to diminish the danger and seriousness of the COVID 19 virus). An objective analysis shows this to be a false equivalency.

    While it is a historical fact that after the Spanish flu had finally run its course, the number of deaths throughout the world was higher than the current death toll for COVID 19 virus, several factors make that comparison relatively meaningless. First, for example. medical science and technology for saving lives was substantially less developed during the Spanish flu epidemic. Physicians explain in a November 17, 2020, article:

    . ., . many deaths related to influenza are actually due to secondary bacterial infections, which today we treat with antibiotics, which were completely unavailable in 1918-19,” Dr. Polsky explains. “Additionally, the state of ICU care with modern mechanical ventilation and ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. when blood is pumped through an artificial lung back into the bloodstream) were far off into the future.”

    Dr. Narasimhan points out that no vaccine or antiviral agent was available. “We did not have the scientific advancement for vaccine development, which would have prevented transmission and decreased disease severity and mortality.”

    The backdrop of World War I was also hugely instrumental in the transmission of the virus that caused Spanish flu. “Military barracks usually have crowding and poor spatial separation, especially in winter months,” Dr. Narasimhan says. “The movement of the troops during the war facilitated spread to other susceptible populations. Likewise, the economic circumstances likely caused crowding in winter months, poor ventilation, and congregation—all of which increased spread.” . . .

    Comparison of the relative rate of deaths to the expected mortality rates arguably gives more accurate information. Indeed, one analysis indicated:

    “[B]ecause baseline mortality rates from 2017 to 2019 were less than half that observed from 1914 to 1917 (owing to improvements in hygiene and modern achievements in medicine, public health, and safety), the relative increase during early COVID-19 period was substantially greater than during the peak of the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic,” . . . . .

    In addition, as of this month, November 2020, COVID 19 has neither been contained nor run its course, which makes comparisons of the final total number of deaths impossible and of no use at this point in time. Thus, the above November article linked first has the caveat:

    The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it’s possible that some data have changed since publication.

    Perhaps even more significant, however, is the silliness and irrelevance of the comparison. Simply because more people may have become seriously ill or die from one particular illness does nothing to lessen the pain experienced by victims and their families who become seriously illness or death from a different illness. Just because more women die from heart disease, for example, doesn’t provide any rational reason to minimize steps we take to avoid sickness and death from cancer.

  8. bearcreekbat 2020-11-26 09:32

    I forgot to put in the first link. No problem, Jerry beat me to it! The first link I quoted from twice is the same as the link he posted just before my comment.

  9. Richard Schriever 2020-11-26 11:26

    From the article above; “Amy Coney Barrett plays a decisive role.” Because – God – my daddy says.

    Who says her religious beliefs will play no role in her legal decisions? No one with any understanding of how individual bias permeates the human mind.

  10. jerry 2020-11-26 11:56

    Nothing speaks higher of religion than gathering and infecting one another with the plague. Funeral masses are kinda cool with that incense burning. I think they should consider using patchouli oil though for the smoke.

  11. Whitless 2020-11-26 11:58

    Peter Norbeck was a true leader who put the best interests of South Dakota above his personal interests. Gov. Cruella de Noem is the opposite. May future histories accurately conclude that she belongs among the worst of South Dakota governors.

  12. grudznick 2020-11-26 12:27

    So just above Gov. Bulow on the list, then?

  13. mike from iowa 2020-11-26 12:52

    drumpf/noem personalized body count will be at or near 270k bodies by this evening.

    United States
    Coronavirus Cases:

    The worst hoax ever, imho. compliments of incompetence and negligent stoopidity on the part of the ruling class of wingnuts.

  14. happy camper 2020-11-26 15:36

    Then perhaps you need to read more about the Spanish Flu. It impacted the healthiest people most, caused their immune system to attack their own body and often die in three days. It’s a very different virus. That said it begs us to understand this virus accurately. After surviving Covid there can be long lasting effects and why would we want to spread it to others? Especially those most at risk. The Danish study supports that those wearing masks most protect others than themselves. That’s gonna be a hard sell in our state with the example Noem has set in her allegiance to Trump, so it means you have to use your best judgment to protect you and your family.

  15. bearcreekbat 2020-11-26 16:43

    It is not clear who happy is telling to read more about the Spanish flu, but I will make a dangerous assumption that happy’s comment may be in response to two of Jerry’s comments and my comment at 2020-11-26 at 09:23.

    Either way I don’t understand the point. Both Jerry’s comments and my comment addressed comparisons about the rate and number of deaths from each disease, especially in light of the different technology available in each era and the fact that COVID 19 is stilling killing people. In addition, I expressed the opinion that comparisons were not only inaccurate but that they made no rational sense from the perspective of people harmed by COVID 19.

    So I ask happy what information has been overlooked or is available by reading more about the Spanish flu that might dispell these points?

    It is clear that the Spanish flu symptoms and progression were not identical to COVID 19. Whether in the end that will show that Spanish flu resulted in a higher rate of deaths or more overall deaths than COVID19 remains to be seen. Likewise, whether a healthy individual that died relatively quickly in only 3 days from Spanish flu had a worse experience than some frail individual that suffered for a few weeks on a ventilator before dying of COVID 19 seems a matter of personal experience rather than an objective fact providing evidence of relative “deadliness.” What have we missed?

  16. Jake 2020-11-26 16:58

    Suffering IS suffering-right BCB? In SD, dying patients tell their nurses, “I can’t believe it- I can’t be dying of Covid! My heroes told me it is a hoax!”

  17. bearcreekbat 2020-11-26 17:03

    Exactly Jake!

  18. jerry 2020-11-26 17:46

    I have not read about long term effects from the Spanish Flu because it is different than the covid19 virus. What covid19 brings to the table, may last forever so we may never know the true fatality rate.

    “Most people who have coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) recover completely within a few weeks. But some people — even those who had mild versions of the disease — continue to experience symptoms after their initial recovery.

    These people sometimes describe themselves as “long haulers” and the condition has been called post-COVID-19 syndrome or “long COVID-19.”

  19. mike from iowa 2020-11-26 17:50

    Heartless, needlessly cruel, sub human covid deniers make suffering worse for the general public.

  20. jerry 2020-11-26 17:55

    Covid19 will be around forever. So we will have to immunize just like we do for polio and our new born will need to be inoculated as well. The Spanish Flu came and went. This covid will be part of us forever.

    “COVID-19 will likely become endemic, meaning it will be a virus that’s around forever. Experts say that a COVID-19 vaccine and other tools will help us gain control over viral transmission and lessen the threat of the virus, which will help us get back to some sense of normal.”

    Wear your masks kiddo’s and wash your widdle digits with much vigor…a lot. Stay your distance and keep out of the crowds. Oh, and IMPEACH GNOem, she’s a killer bee.

  21. jerry 2020-11-26 18:47

    Spanish Flu in California 1918 “REFUSED TO WEAR MASK–IS SHOT DOWN

    H.D. Miller, a deputy health officer, shot and severely wounded James Wisser, a horseshoer, in front of a downtown drug store early today, following Willer’s refusal to don an influenza mask.


    California, in 1918, was a wee bit tougher on perpetrators than Rapid City Home Guard. Wear that mask!!

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