Smallpox epidemics led to quarantines and vaccines
Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
Many comparisons have been made between COVID-19 and the Spanish Influenza epidemic that followed WWI. But a look at public policy related to smallpox outbreaks can also tell us a lot about the restrictions communities have sometimes made on individual liberties to protect the larger community.
For instance, when smallpox struck Olive Hill in June of 1917 the town appointed two guards to enforce the quarantines on those who had been exposed to the virus. But, as the paper noted, two men were not enough, “to guard 4,000 people and tell where they are all at.”
The Herald actually advocated for a guard to be placed at the door of every household with a known infection, “and not allow either to come or go until it is cured up.”
If folks didn’t take responsibility, and stay home when exposed, the Herald said, “the entire town will be under quarantine and the progress of business stopped to a stand-still.”
Though the language is dated, the context should sound very familiar to anyone following the news over the past year.
By February of the following year, the county health office and state board of health had acted, and the action was a vaccine mandate.
“The smallpox is going from Olive Hill if anybody happens to ask you,” the February 14, 1918, edition of the Herald read. The reason was, “a general vaccination (the county) enforced, by which every man, woman, and child in the three school precincts (had to) be vaccinated,” according to the paper.
While the paper supported the vaccination efforts, they lamented that it ever had to come to such, and chastised the doctor who had not “done his duty” – presumably in enforcing quarantines among exposed individuals – so that the community was forced to “obey the law or abide by the consequences.”
While Spanish flu would come to dominate headlines in the coming year, health officials were keen to stop any new epidemic before it could spread, resulting in the closure of schools, churches, and leisure halls later in the year when an illness that could have been “a good, old time case of the grippe,” another name for influenza, began spreading in the county. Restrictions would tighten again as the flu spread, showing that there is nothing new about the restrictions being put in place for COVID-19 today, or in people ignoring those rules despite the dangers an illness presents.
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