MIAMI (CBSMiami) – More than one hundred years after the 1918 Spanish flu swept across the globe, sickening 500 million people or one-third of the world’s population, historians are sharing the similarities of that pandemic to today’s coronavirus crisis.

Diagnosing and caring for the sick was challenging. At the time, no test or vaccine existed, and neither did breathing machines. Doctors could do little but provide supportive care.

In October of 1918, the war in Europe was winding down. Sailors from Miami’s Dinner Key seaplane base on parade.

Officers and enlisted men from the Dinner Key Naval Air Base parading on Flagler Street near Biscayne Boulevard on Armistice Day, circa 1920.
(Courtesy: Claude C. Matlack, photographer. South Florida Photograph Collection. HistoryMiami Museum, 1996-897-30)

“There was a large presence of men in uniform and they became ill during this flu,” explained Dr. Paul George, resident historian at the HistoryMiami museum.

Miami was hit hard by the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and the same was true across the state of Florida.

Just like today, face masks were worn by everyone.

1st March 1919: Two men wearing and advocating the use of flu masks in Paris during the Spanish flu epidemic which followed World War I. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

There were warning posters across the country and the world. Scenes like that from long ago echo today.

“The similarity is amazing, questions about leadership at every level. Hospitals did not have enough staffing; hospital workers became sick,” explained George, “Schools were closed, theater, closed, people out of work.”

Miami’s lone hospital overflowed including a building which remains standing in the center of the Jackson Memorial Hospital complex.

Miami City Hospital, the Alamo, circa 1918. (Courtesy: Claude C. Matlack, photographer. Matlack Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, C45.)

“They could not accommodate everybody, actually erected tents around the hospital for further treatment as the hospital was full of patients,” said George.

In segregated Miami, there was no hospital for black patients, which eventually led to the creation of a facility called The Christian Hospital.

Christian Hospital opened soon after the epidemic to serve African Americans. This view probably depicts the dedication ceremony. (Courtesy: Hicks Studio, photographer. Miami News Collection, HistoryMiami Museum, 1989-011-2822)

“D.A. Dorsey the black millionaire said, ‘Listen I will provide space and put something up here for a hospital.’ The Crescent Hotel in colored town was made into a make shift hospital for those who were sick,” George explained. “The Christian Hospital in that photograph is important because it became the first permanent black hospital.”

As quick as it came, the flu exited Miami. The month long siege seemed to evaporate.

Man and woman converse in front of Dinner Key Quarantine Hospital, 1918. Coconut Grove, Fla.
(Courtesy: HistoryMiami Museum, 1983-74-15)

“Bye the end of October we had 87 deaths though out the city and surrounding area of about 28-30 thousand. It did take a toll. A lot of sick people as with this most who were sick did not lose their lives, thank God,” said George.

A total of 87 people died in the Miami area because of that Spanish flu pandemic.

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