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Twentieth-Century Lessons for a Modern Coronavirus Pandemic

Educational Objective
To understand how pandemics from the twentieth-century can help us understand how to treat COVID-19
1 Credit CME

As the United States contemplated reopening in mid-April, the country could have taken a lesson from history: once social distancing is in place during a pandemic, stay the course.

That lesson was outlined in a 2007 pandemic preparedness study from researchers at the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine who teamed up with colleagues at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their goal: to understand how social distancing and quarantine efforts during the devastating 1918-1919 influenza pandemic affected death rates in US cities.

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As the United States contemplated reopening in mid-April, the country could have taken a lesson from history: once social distancing is in place during a pandemic, stay the course.

That lesson was outlined in a 2007 pandemic preparedness study from researchers at the University of Michigan’s Center for the History of Medicine who teamed up with colleagues at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Their goal: to understand how social distancing and quarantine efforts during the devastating 1918-1919 influenza pandemic affected death rates in US cities.

Data from 43 large US cities spanning September 8, 1918, through February 22, 1919, showed that nonpharmaceutical interventions—a traditional term for social distancing practices like closing schools and banning large public gatherings—could prevent influenza deaths. In the study, the pandemic took a lesser toll on cities that implemented these interventions earlier and for longer periods.

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