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Ending a Pandemic Lockdown Too Soon
Los Angeles, 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic

Oakland, California, Temporary Influenza Hospital, 1918

1918, American Red Cross nurses care for influenza patients at Oakland Municipal Auditorium, converted into a temporary hospital. Photo by Edward A. "Doc" Rogers, Library of Congress via AP.

There is a clamor in our country to ignore public health experts and end stay-at-home orders sooner than later. The economy needs people back in stores and back at work. Besides, we hear that this COVID-19 pandemic may have already peaked. However, history screams back at us. One hundred years ago, this happened during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic in Los Angeles. Then, business and other interests in the city pressured politicians to end a city-wide stay-at-home order that had gone on for seven weeks. The lucrative holiday season was approaching and businesses needed shoppers back in their stores. The L.A. city council eventually caved and overruled its public health officials. After all, the number of new cases and deaths were rapidly declining. Angelenos were allowed to crowd back into stores, schools, restaurants, movie theaters and churches. The result? A new wave of influenza cases and deaths soon followed, forcing authorities to quickly re-impose a lockdown. This premature lifting of lockdown orders extended the epidemic for yet another month and, by our estimate, resulted in as many as 18,000 more infection cases among Angelenos and 1,100 unnecessary deaths.

Influenza Cases and Deaths, Los Angeles, 1918-1919

Los Angeles Almanac Chart. Click on chart for larger image.

Source: Case numbers reported in daily editions of the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Evening Herald. Death numbers are from the Week Health Index, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, 1918-1919, digital copies available through Influenza Encyclopedia.