Pandemics through history: What we can learn and how it relates to COVID-19

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - There are many similarities with the novel coronavirus to past pandemics in terms of origins, spread, and response, but there are a lot of unknowns still surrounding COVID-19.

"So with past pandemics you had maybe 24 to 48 hours when someone was infectious but not showing symptoms, and now we have two weeks and maybe even then people don't show symptoms. So it's created a lot of uncertainty," said UAA Director of public policy, Chad Briggs, who has also taught courses on the history of outbreaks.

If you take a look through history, nothing has killed more people than infectious disease. Pandemics ranging in death tolls from 200 million from the black death in the 1300s, to about 770 from SARS in 2003, and now COVID-19 with 22 thousand deaths worldwide-- and counting. Briggs says even with their differences, there's something to be learned from past pandemics.

He says while COVID-19 is not a type of flu, there are similarities to the 1918 flu pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu, in the way it's spreading and community response-- such as the need for social distancing.

"So the cities that were successful in clamping down-- they couldn't eradicate it, but in clamping down on the virus-- were cities like Chicago, and San Francisco, which really instituted a lot of the severe restrictions that we see today in terms of shutting down businesses, big social events, just trying to keep people from interacting with one another," said Briggs.

Briggs says there's a lot to be learned in terms of monitoring. Past outbreaks have taught us about the importance of knowing who is sick, and understanding patterns. We've also been hearing a lot about 'flattening the curve' which eases the strain on medical personnel.

"The death rate from the 1918 flu pandemic was so high in large part because there was no medical system that could handle people. In places outside of the U.S. or say the Lower 48, the death rate was much higher during that pandemic precisely because there was no medical care, because people were left to their own, and we may see that again with the coronavirus," said Briggs. "With COVID-19 if someone gets this disease where there's no medical care, the death rate is going to be much higher."

The death toll was especially high in Alaska when the flu pandemic hit the state. Before the 1700s, Alaska, being so remote, was largely separated from global pandemics, that is, until the first Europeans reached the state.

"Because the Alaska Natives hadn't been exposed to all of these European diseases-- Influenza, measles, whooping cough, diptheria-- they were hugely vulnerable," said Briggs.

Briggs says once the epidemics and pandemics started hitting the state, they had massive impacts on many native villages-- specifically 1918 the flu pandemic.

"There were these horrific stories of entire villages that would get wiped out," Briggs said. "By wiped out meaning 80% of the people would be killed, or trappers would come across individual villages where everyone had been killed and there were simply wild dogs that were left."

Because Alaska is so remote, Briggs says there weren't any medical facilities available for treatment, causing massive death tolls. However, there was one idea that seemed to work for some communities.

"So Barrow-- Utqiagvik, they had advanced warning of what was happening in 1918 and they posted armed guards outside of the town and didn't let anyone in or out. They by and large escaped any of the flu by doing that, but that was back when they could subsist on native hunting and that's simply not a possibility these days," said Briggs.

Restricting travel-- similar to an action being taken by some villages today. While tactics like restricting travel and social distancing seem to slow the spread, there's still a lot of uncertainties surrounding the future of COVID-19.

"What we don't know about the coronavirus is how much it's going to vary from year to year. Is this going to be seasonal? Meaning it temps down in the summer and then flares up again in the winter, but in a different way, like flu does? Or is this going to be something that is simply constant in which case, it may be really bad for the next year or so, but then once we come up with a vaccine, then it's something like measles where people get the vaccine and we're going to be mostly immune to it in the future, then you only have to get a-- say vaccination once every 20 years."

Briggs says one thing that is for certain? How we act now affects how history will see us in the future.

"We don't want the history books to write that this decimated the country because people didn't react quickly enough, or they didn't make the right decisions, and that's up to us now," said Briggs.

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