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Rushing to End a Pandemic Lockdown
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.

It has been intensely debated in our country about the need to balance the threat of a pandemic with the need to re-open our economy. The economy needs people back in stores and back at work. Besides, some of the nation's highest-level officials have declared the COVID-19 pandemic to be under control. History, however, has a way of trying to caution us. One hundred years ago, Los Angeles faced the same debate during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. 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 then appeared to be declining. Angelenos were allowed to crowd back into stores, schools, restaurants, movie theaters and churches.

What soon followed was a new wave of influenza cases and deaths, forcing authorities to quickly re-impose another lockdown. The premature lifting of lockdown orders appeared to extend L.A.'s pandemic experience for yet another month and, by our estimates, resulted in as many as 18,000 additional 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.