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A history lesson

Seven weeks after Gov. Tony Evers ordered Wisconsin schools and businesses closed, people are losing patience in the fight against COVID-19. Protesters ringed the State Capitol on Friday demanding businesses be reopened. The state legislature has petitioned the state Supreme Court to toss out the governor’s Safer at Home restrictions as unconstitutional. And legislators, eager to help struggling businesses in their home districts, now suggest a regional approach to reopening the state. Thus local Sen. Kathy Bernier (R-Chippewa Falls) proposes a Back To Business county-by-county approach based on a risk score.

This regional approach has a natural appeal, especially if you live in a county officially free of the coronavirus (Taylor, Langlade and Lincoln). But there are problems. Nobody really knows the infection rate of any county. A county’s “confi rmed cases” report is not a number you can base a medical decision on. Here is the Marathon County Health Department disclaimer about its official coronavirus count: “We urge community members to view this data with caution, as it does not account for the number of individuals in the community that may have COVID-19.” And there is a second problem. We don’t know where the virus will strike next. Marathon County could continue to see few cases, or, perhaps, the Green Bay slaughterhouse outbreak could travel here. It’s only an hour and one half away by car.

That leaves us in a tough spot. Do we stay the course with a statewide home quarantine? Or go regional?

In this difficulty, we think history can help. A look at the Spanish Flu of 1918 in Wisconsin is instructive.

In many ways, the COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu are twin pandemics. The two highly contagious diseases started overseas and, coming to the United States, have spread like wildfire, killing thousands. Like the current coronavirus, Spanish Flu hit Wisconsin biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison, hardest, but eventually found victims in even the state’s most rural, desolate counties. Just like today, the state’s top health official ordered closed schools, churches, restaurants, theaters and bars--while leaving open factories and other places of regular employment. People wore cotton masks as protection.

What’s significant is that while Wisconsin’s response to the Spanish Flu was not perfect, it was better than many states and, in the end, the state was rewarded for its uniform, statewide approach to fighting the disease. The state’s death rate for Spanish Flu was 2.91 per thousand compared with a national average mortality rate of 4.39 per thousand.

Historian Steve Burg in a monograph for the Wisconsin Historical Society points out that lapses in this consistent, comprehensive approach were punished with outbreaks. The worst of these disease flare-ups was in Wausau.

What happened was that state health officer Dr. Cornelius Harper ordered all schools in Wisconsin closed, but, misunderstanding the order, Wausau kept its schools open. The Spanish Flu descended on Wausau with a vengeance. It took a massive community effort to combat the disease. The Ladies Literary Society sewed masks. The Red Cross Home Association recruited young women to work as volunteer nurses. The Marathon County Training School for Teachers prepared meals for those too sick to cook for themselves. Employers Mutual Liability Insurance Company gave customers cards urging people to cover up coughs and sneezes (“if you don’t you’ll spread disease”). In the end, the state sent L.E. Blackmer of UW-Extension to Wausau to oversee the local fight against Spanish Flu.

Maybe the state can reopen central Wisconsin for business and everything would be fine. But, maybe, just like in 1918, Wausau or some other northcentral Wisconsin city would become the state hotspot for a pandemic.

Unfortunately, we don’t know the path of the virus. In this ignorance, we say it would be safer to stick to a consistent, statewide approach. That’s what saved lives back in 1918. That will likely save lives today.