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Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP) Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP)

Flag-waving, honking protesters drove past the Michigan Capitol on Wednesday to show their displeasure with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's orders to keep people at home and businesses locked during the new coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak. (AP)

Amy Sherman
By Amy Sherman April 17, 2020

What the 1918 flu pandemic shows us about social distancing

If Your Time is short

  • Protesters called on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to relax Michigan’s social distancing requirements.

  • Whitmer said she will base decisions on how to reopen Michigan on facts and science.

  • A 2007 study found that amid the 1918 flu pandemic, many cities experienced second waves after ending social distancing.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders prompted conservatives to organize protests, but Whitmer said she will base decisions on how and when to relax Michigan’s social distancing guidelines on facts and science.

At a press conference April 15, Whitmer said that the protests where people gathered without masks in close proximity "may have just created a need to lengthen it, which is something that we’re trying to avoid at all costs."

Whitmer said she is working with experts in health care and other sectors to create a data-driven approach to reopening the state. "I want to be very clear that our decision to re-engage sectors is going to be based on the best facts and the best science, and what facts and science have told us is that re-engaging our state too soon or too fast will lead to a second wave of COVID-19 in Michigan," she said. "During the flu pandemic of 1918, some cities lifted social distancing measures too fast, too soon, and created a second wave of pandemic."

Whitmer said that as a result of lifting social distancing measures too fast in 1918, many cities had to revert to quarantines and "suffered a lot of additional deaths." 

We will explain the source of her data, which comes from an academic paper in 2007

Research about social distancing during the 1918 flu

The influenza pandemic of 1918 spread worldwide and killed at least 50 million people, including about 675,000 in the United States. Since there was no vaccine for the virus and no antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections, control efforts were largely limited to social distancing and quarantines, which were applied unevenly.

During her press conference, Whitmer pointed to a chart by National Geographic, which displayed the findings of a 2007 study about the death rates in 43 cities during the 1918 pandemic. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and written by researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Two of the authors summarized their findings in the Washington Post in April.

"The experience of 1918 also reminds us that early, layered (i.e., more than one at the same time) and lengthy mitigation measures are the best strategy. For social distancing to work, it must be sweeping and enforced across a wide swath of the community," wrote Howard Markel and J. Alexander Navarro.

The researchers examined social distancing in 43 cities during about 24 weeks in 1918-19. Public gathering bans typically meant the closure of saloons, public entertainment venues and sporting events. Indoor gatherings were banned or moved outdoors. 

Researchers found that cities that implemented social distancing in a timely and comprehensive manner and sustained those rules suffered the least.

St. Louis, for example, implemented a relatively early, layered strategy that included school closures and the cancellation of public gatherings. It sustained those interventions for about 10 weeks and did not experience nearly as harmful an outbreak as 36 other communities. 

Conversely, Philadelphia held a massive Liberty Bond Parade to bolster the World War I effort. That led to a spike of thousands of flu cases within days. In Atlanta, the mayor sided with the business community and ended closures after three weeks, despite objections from the board of health. The epidemic raged in Atlanta.

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Researchers documented public pressure to end social distancing as soon as the flu seemed to peak and ebb. Cities then lifted the measures, and people lined up for movies and packed into dance halls and shopping districts.

"The result? Cases and deaths resurged. Most cities closed their schools once again," the researchers wrote

Researchers noted caveats including that there could be errors in the historical record and the difficulties in interpreting data from 90 years ago. 

Navarro, one of the study authors, told PolitiFact that the study shows that communities must be very careful about removing social distancing restrictions too soon. Social distancing flattens the curve, but it doesn’t end the epidemic. It ends when a community  reaches hard immunity through vaccine or antibody reaction from infection.

A separate paper published in 2007 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined 17 U.S. cities during the flu pandemic. It found that cities in which interventions were implemented early had peak death rates about 50% lower than those that did not. It concluded that social distancing and other measures "can significantly reduce influenza transmission, but that viral spread will be renewed upon relaxation of such measures."

What this means for easing social distancing now

It’s tricky to compare lifting restrictions "too early" with "holding them for longer," said Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist and one of the co-authors of the National Academy of Sciences paper. In either case, there will be some amount of resurgence once social distancing is let up.

A recent paper he co-authored in Science suggested that a single period of distancing could not permanently solve the problem; prolonged or intermittent social distancing may be necessary into 2022.

"So overall, the problem is that it's not short vs. long, but single vs. repeated (or some other strategy such as a vaccine)," he told PolitiFact.

On April 15, President Donald Trump said he thinks some states can open up before May 1. Many scientists have warned that ending the interventions prematurely will lead to more deaths.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, told the Associated Press on April 14 that the U.S. doesn’t yet have the contact tracing and testing needed to reopen the economy. He said Trump’s goal was a "bit overly optimistic" for parts of the country. 

"I’ll guarantee you, once you start pulling back there will be infections. It’s how you deal with the infections that’s going count," Fauci told the AP.

Our ruling

Whitmer said, "During the flu pandemic of 1918, some cities lifted social distancing measures too fast, too soon, and created a second wave of pandemic."

Typically, when social distancing ends, there is a second wave. The goal is to make the second wave as small as possible. Whitmer pointed to research from the University of Michigan in 2007 that found after social distancing rules ended in many cities, cases and deaths surged. 

We rate this statement Mostly True.

 

Our Sources

Rev.com, Governor Gretchen Whitmer Michigan Briefing April 15, 2020

National Geographic, How some cities ‘flattened the curve’ during the 1918 flu pandemic, March 27, 2020

Detroit Free Press, Gov. Whitmer says Capitol protesters put others at risk, may have worsened pandemic, April 15, 2020

J. Alexander Navarro and Howard Markel of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan op ed in Washington Post, To save lives, social distancing must continue longer than we expect, April 8, 2020

Vox, Social distancing won’t just save lives. It might be better for the economy in the long run. March 31, 2020

New York Times, Cities That Went All In on Social Distancing in 1918 Emerged Stronger for It, April 3, 2020

JAMA, Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by US Cities During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic, Aug. 8, 2007

Proceedings of the National Academy of sciences, Public health interventions and epidemic intensity during the 1918 influenza pandemic

Associated Press, Fauci: ‘We’re not there yet’ on key steps to reopen economy, April 15, 2020

Pandemics Depress the Economy, Public Health Interventions Do Not: Evidence from the 1918 Flu, April 13, 2020

Science, Projecting the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the postpandemic period, April 14, 2020

Reuters, Scattered protests push back on U.S. coronavirus stay-at-home orders, April 16, 2020

World Health Organization, WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 - March 25, 2020

Smithsonian, Philadelphia Threw a WWI Parade That Gave Thousands of Onlookers the Flu, Sept. 21, 2018

Email interview, J. Alexander Navarro, Assistant Director, Center for the History of Medicine, The University of Michigan, April 16, 2020

Email interview, Marc Lipsitch, Professor of Epidemiology Director, Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, April 16, 2020

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What the 1918 flu pandemic shows us about social distancing

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