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South County Reporter Alex Nunes spoke with Westerly Historical Society Vice President Thomas O’Connell about the town some say was outdone by none when Spanish flu came to America. NUNES: In late September 1918, two local deaths are reported in The Westerly Sun, but at this point there’s no statewide action plan in place in Rhode Island. What does Westerly do?

O’CONNELL: Westerly, taking their own initiative, says, “OK. We got to keep people away from each other, because we know that it spreads by people being in contact with each other.” They also closed down places of public attraction, say, for instance, there were soda fountains at that time, there were bars, there were restaurants, there were movie theaters. Even you will find that churches closed down. They just used common sense and medical knowledge to protect the people in Westerly. 

NUNES: And as time went on, they went as far as to open up two hospitals at local elementary schools.

O’CONNELL: Yeah. Well, one of the things that got activated was, of course, the Red Cross in town, and the Westerly Sanitary Corps. These two groups got together and worked to combat the disease. For instance, they brought them to the Beach Street School if they were really severe. They had knocked down some walls and so on so there were 29 beds. And, as people recovered, they would then be sent up to the Pleasant Street School.

NUNES: A key figure at this time in town was the Westerly public health officer, Samuel Webster. Can you tell me about him?

O’CONNELL: He was a man who took initiative. He didn’t wait around. He instituted the idea of separating the people from each other in public places. He probably saved quite a few lives by doing that. One of the things he did was he talked to Dr. Bacon. Bacon was the superintendent of schools at that time. And he said, “Listen, you got to close down the schools,” and Bacon closed them down until further notice. 

NUNES: He saw the seriousness of this at a time when other public health officials in larger cities didn’t.

O’CONNELL: Yes, that’s correct. Up in Providence, Dr. Chapin, who was in charge of the health of the people, he was waiting for data to come in. Well, no data was coming in, so there wasn’t as much of a response in Providence as there was in Westerly, and Westerly is to be credited for taking the initiative and saying, “This is what has to be done.”

NUNES: Were the special measures taken in Westerly, were they effective?

O’CONNELL: Yes. They were effective. If all these people had continued their social practices of going to movies, and so on and congregating and so on, the disease Spanish Flu might have proliferated even more. Unfortunately, there were some deaths in the town, in particular in the North End of town. The people lived close to each other. They had to call out the National Guard. They created a parameter of houses that soldiers would patrol the streets and tell the people, “Please, don’t go visiting.” That was one of the things people did in that particular area, because they were so used to family life. But, they had to come [and say] “No, no. You can’t visit so and so. You have to wait.”

NUNES: Now, more than 100 years later, we’re living in the COVID-19 pandemic. What lessons can be drawn from Westerly’s response to Spanish Influenza today?

O’CONNELL: Well, I think, first of all stick together as a community and help each other out. And if you’re given directive, don’t scoff at things that should be done, for instance, avoiding contact with other people, staying at home. And I think when we learn a little bit more about the Spanish Flu of 1918, we can see even more lessons that can be learned.

NUNES: Thomas O’Connell, vice president of the Westerly Historical Society, thanks so much for speaking with me.   

O’CONNELL: Well, thank you for inviting me. I certainly hope that something can be learned from the lessons of the past. History always teaches us, if we just listen.

[You can read an article by Thomas O’Connell about Westerly’s response to Spanish Influenza in 1918 at the website Small State, Big History: http://smallstatebighistory.com/an-enemy-creeps-in/]