In the fall of 1918, one of the deadliest health events visited Tuolumne County and the world. It began in Haskell County, Kansas, in early 1918 as an epidemic of influenza.
A local doctor noted that dozens of the strongest and healthiest people of the county were being infected. When the disease progressed into pneumonia, patients died.
In early March the virus was reported at Camp Funston, 300 miles away from Haskell County. The camp was a WWI training center for recruits preparing for combat. Within three weeks, more than 1,100 others were hospitalized with the virus and respiratory bacteria. The U.S. training camps became a breeding ground for the virus, as young, healthy soldiers rotating in and out of the posts and aboard ships to Europe.
The influenza virus became known as the “Spanish flu,” a misnomer due to the earliest news releases which occurred in Madrid, Spain. Spain was one of the few European countries to remain neutral during WWI, which meant the media was free to report the gruesome details of the pandemic without wartime censors suppressing the news of the flu.
On Oct. 14, 1918, Pietro Oliveri, proprietor of the Europa Hotel in Sonora, was the first reported victim of the epidemic in Tuolumne County. On Oct. 20, local health officers published a health bulletin declaring all public gathering places, including schools and theatres to be closed indefinitely to check the spread of the virus.
Dr. William Hood, the county health officer, ordered that gauze face masks were required by all persons who come in contact with known influenza cases. By early November, that was changed to all persons in Sonora were required to wear a face mask where two or more persons were congregated, except in homes where only family members were present.
Otto Mouron, local chairman of Home Service of the American Red Cross, appealed to women of Sonora to volunteer a half day or night to care for those sick with the flu. Cases of the flu overwhelmed the Tuolumne County Hospital during the month of November.
Months after WWI ended, the pandemic raged on. It is impossible to know exactly how many families in Tuolumne County lost loved ones to the epidemic, but worldwide the death toll is estimated as high as 100 million dead.
Betty Sparagna is a volunteer for the Tuolumne County Historical Society.