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Now and then: TCNJ’s response to global health emergencies

The March shutdown of campus as a result of COVID-19 wasn’t the first time a public health crisis forced the college to send students, faculty, and staff home. In 1918, when TCNJ was known as the New Jersey State Normal School at Trenton, a pandemic — commonly referred to as the Spanish flu — spread infection with such ferocity that the school had to shutter its doors. It remained closed for three weeks at the peak of the epidemic, according to a timeline in the 1919 edition of the college’s yearbook, The Seal.

October 3.—Another unwelcome visitor at the halls. Some one opened the door and “influenza.” (Old one.) Anyway, it took a lot of our girls. October 4.—School closed on account of influenza, and all well girls go home. Here’s hoping the sick girls soon get well to enjoy the vacation, too. October 28.—Back again, and nearly all feeling fine. Hope we have no more such visitors, although the vacation was great. November 1.—Fear of brain fever. All the teachers are telling us how much work we shall have to do to make up for three weeks’ vacation. Oh!

From September 1918, when the flu began spreading at Fort Dix, until October 22, more than 4,400 New Jerseyans died because of complications from the bug. In total, nearly 675,000 individuals died from the Spanish flu in the United States, with worldwide numbers far more severe.

Today, New Jersey is once again facing increasing death totals because of a virus. From March 4, when the first New Jersey resident was identified as testing positive for COVID-19, more than 164,000 positive tests have been confirmed, with 12,000 deaths.

“New Jersey is certainly taking a more aggressive approach with the coronavirus than it did with the influenza virus,” says Akash Patel, a junior biology major who has studied the Spanish flu as part of professor Rita King’s First Year Seminar focused on the history of disease. “Statewide decisions are being made instead of municipalities. Additionally, schools are being kept closed for a longer period of time. Hopefully, these measures prevent the reemergence of the coronavirus. In the case of influenza, there was a subsequent reemergence in December 1918.”

King, an adjunct instructor of biology who closely monitors the spread of infectious disease, notes that though the viruses are somewhat similar in their veracity, the best prevention method hasn’t changed.

“The best prevention is the same as 1918—wash your hands and stay a certain physical distance between you and the next person,” she says. “There is no anti-viral that is working where we would like it to be. There is no vaccine. Some are in trials but that doesn’t mean they will be ready soon.”

As for how to proceed, King suggests staying the social-distancing course.

“It doesn’t appear to be seasonal as influenza is,” King says. “Countries with their hot summers still have this bug wreaking havoc. It could still be around when our next flu season hits in the fall. If we are going to contain this we need to continue banning mass gatherings, implementing extensive testing, contact tracing, isolating the infected, and quarantining those suspected of being infected.”

— Emily W. Dodd ’03 and David Pavlak

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