Pandemic response: nothing new to the state of Wisconsin


Poster informing citizens on how to “play it safe” during the pandemic.

Peter Laning, Writer, Podcaster

It has been a rough couple of months for Wisconsinites. A pandemic has swept the nation, forcing the closure of business deemed unessential. Many stores that remain open strongly encourage patrons to don facemasks or at the very least, maintain a proper social distance of at least six feet.   

These measures, put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Wisconsin, are not new concept to the Badger State – though terms like “flatten the curve” and “social distancing” most certainly are.  In late 1918, as the first World War was drawing to its close, and a new enemy was spreading across the United States – one that would prove to be much more deadly than any army. 

By the week of September 28two sailors visiting Milwaukee from the Great Lakes Naval Training Station (Illinois) became severely ill.  Their illness?  A mutated strain of H1N1 influenza, commonly known as the “Spanish Flu.” 

The disease spread like wildfire. Between September and December of 1918, the State of Wisconsin witnessed more than 100,000 cases with nearly 8,500 deaths.  Compared to the rest of the United States, these numbers are relatively low – about 2.91 deaths per 1,000 cases – though they were much higher than the surrounding states of Minnesota, Michigan, and Indiana.  The national average was around 4.39 deaths per 1,000 cases. 

Wisconsin’s low mortality rate can be accounted for by the state’s relatively low population density (Milwaukee, Madison, Green Bay, etc. aside), but there are other factors at play, too.  The flu arrived in Wisconsin late in the year, while the pandemic (unofficially) began on Europe’s western front in January.  Political maneuvers on the local and national scene also allowed for the disease to spread less quickly (we today would call this “flattening the curve”). 

Perhaps surprisingly, Wisconsin citizens in 1918 were more than willing to follow state and federal guidelines to combat influenza.   

“THE ‘FLU’ IS INCREASING,” read one sign posted in a Wisconsin factory, “No one knows the cause of this disease. It killed twice as many people in the United States last year as our armies lost in France.  IF YOU WANT TO PLAY SAFE: 

  1. Keep away from sick people, especially if they cough or sneeze. 
  2. Use your handkerchief if you cough or sneeze. 
  3. Avoid crowded streetcars, trains, or houses. 
  4. Don’t spit on the floor. 
  5. Wash your hands before eating 
  6. Keep your fingers out of your mouth. 
  7. Avoid common drinking cups. 
  8. Keep out of dusty places. 

And so they did. In Milwaukee, Milwaukee Health Commissioner Dr. George Ruhland immediately set up advisory committees, reporting networks, and “an intensive publicity campaign unparalleled in the history of the city” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). But the campaign to defeat the flu didn’t end there.  Two weeks after the first cases were reported in the city, Milwaukee was forced to close all public gathering spaces indefinitely.  This included bars, churches, schools, dance halls, theaters, and other areas of public entertainment.   

Within a few weeks, these desperate measures seemed to pay off.  On November 4, after weeks of virtual silence in Wisconsin’s largest city, the pandemic had slowed enough that these businesses were allowed to reopen their doors to the public.  Another week later, on November 11, World War One came to its conclusion.  And of course, Milwaukee being Milwaukee, the city (like most others across the US) threw a big party. 

Unfortunately, this is where the flu would find its way back in.  Later in the month, a second wave would sweep across Wisconsin, infecting thousands more than had already experienced the deadly enemy firsthandThis time, it would take until Christmas for all restrictions to be rolled back – this time permanently. 

These conditions would be echoed across much of the state, though Milwaukee County would suffer the worst out of Wisconsin’s seventy-two counties with nearly 1,300 deaths (per the State Historical Society of Wisconsin).  Dane (Madison), Racine, Kenosha, Brown (Green Bay), and Douglass (Superior, WI/Duluth, MN) Counties would also be hard hit.   

Despite this, Milwaukee was and is praised as a model of pandemic response.  By creating and mobilizing volunteer forces and by enacting a public service campaign, Dr. Ruhland – and by extension, the people and city of Milwaukee – were able to save thousands of lives that otherwise would have been at a higher risk of exposure to an unknown disease.