Long Beach's History with Pandemics

By the late spring of 2021, the COVID-19 virus invaded every region of the planet, bringing death and social dislocation in its wake. Although the exact numbers continue to change, well over one 175 million persons have been infected worldwide, with more than 3.7 million deaths attributed to the virus. In some regions, governments responded quickly, mandating procedures and protocols that contained the spread of this new and deadly virus. Some governments reacted more cautiously, resulting in a rapid spread of the infection. The scientific response has led to the unprecedented development of vaccines that provide protection from the virus. The hope remains that these new medical weapons will eventually control the virus and stop its deadly toll on nations.

In the United States the virus has infected more than 33 million citizens since December 2019, and the death toll is close to 600,000. The introduction of vaccines developed by pharmaceutical companies in coordination with national governments has slowed the spread of new infections, and the death rate has also declined. Along with the use of face masks, social distancing, and other common-sense weapons that reduce the odds of infection, the optimistic hope is that the mass vaccination programs will slow and then stop the progress of the COVID-19 virus.

Southern California and the Long Beach region experienced the full impact of this pandemic. Schools stopped in-person instruction, churches reduced their services, and restaurants, bars, museums and other businesses where people gathered were closed down for extended periods as local and state governments assumed broad powers to control public gatherings. In California, due to dramatically declining case and death rates combined with high vaccination rates, as of June 15, 2021, most pandemic restrictions have been lifted and the state is almost fully reopened.

These dramatic events were not the first time that Long Beach experienced a severe and extended crisis caused by an unknown virus. The Great Pandemic of 1918-1921, often inaccurately referred to as the Spanish Flu, struck the world in the aftermath of World War I, infecting millions in less than a year. The three waves of the virus eventually infected more than five hundred million persons worldwide. In the United States more than 600,000 persons died during this epidemic. Since medical knowledge of virus-borne infections remained rudimentary, national and local officials struggled to find the appropriate approaches to combat the epidemic. Some cities, such as San Francisco, mandated that all citizens wear masks in public in 1918. Those who refused could face possible arrest and a five-dollar fine. Long Beach and Pasadena followed with mask edicts of their own and schools and churches closed their doors. Late in the fall of 1918, convinced that the worst had passed, cities began to relax their rules.

A second wave of the influenza soon struck throughout the state and by Christmas thousands of new cases flooded California hospitals. Long Beach recorded 93 new cases, including 49 children in January 1919. City leaders suspended all public meetings until the summer of 1919, sending police officers into stores and markets to encourage patrons to “keep moving”. A less severe third wave of the influenza swept across the nation late in 1919, but officials responded quickly with new rules. Largely gone by the end of 1921, the Great Pandemic tended to fade in popular memory as post-war prosperity, growth and development occupied the public’s attention.

Hard won experience from this latest of virus epidemics, as health officials note, reinforces the idea that the nation must always be ready for such sudden and dramatic emergencies, and be able to use all of the medical and social tools at our disposal.