We Remember “Christmas Season 1968: The Hong Kong Flu and Gratiot County”

A cartoon appears in the December 16, 1968 issue of the Daily Record-Leader. On that day Central Michigan University announced that the semester would end one week early due to an outbreak on campus of the Hong Kong flu.

Two children in Iowa see a sign posted in response to the Hong Kong flu. An estimated 100,000 people in the United States died from the flu in 1968-1969.

Early in December 1968, Gratiot County sounded prepared for the flu season. At Alma’s Wright Avenue School, a small chicken pox epidemic affected the kindergarten class, causing eleven students to stay home. Because many students now took regular flu shots, county schools were not too concerned about flu season. Still, things in the mid-Michigan area soon gave reasons for concern.

News spread across the United States in 1968 that a new type of flu was at work – the Hong Kong flu, which originated in China during the summer and spread across the Pacific. Some medical experts thought this flu came to the United States as men came home from Vietnam. As a result, this flu kept an estimated 300,000 adults and children home in Los Angeles. In New York City, Adelphi University canceled its graduation ceremony. Actress Tallulah Bankhead, age 65, died from pneumonia, which she contracted after suffering from influenza. Hospitals in New York had reduced staff due to contracting the flu, and soon at least thirty states reported outbreaks of this new influenza.

In Detroit, two Catholic schools closed due to flu, with more than ten percent of students absent. Livonia Schools also did so because of the high number of sicknesses they encountered. In the business world, Chrysler Corporation knew that more workers were missing due to the flu, and General Motors noticed the same.

The symptoms of Hong Kong flu sounded familiar, with people suffering chills, fever, headaches, and extreme fatigue. In response, doctors prescribed bed rest as vaccines for this flu strain remained in short supply. Medical experts warned that victims contracted this strain because they had no previous immunity, striking quickly and in large numbers.

Near Gratiot County, things became more serious when Central Michigan University closed the week of December 16 as an average of one of six dormitory students came down with the flu. Classes ended a week earlier than scheduled that semester and would return on January 6. Over at American Coach Company, a DMH, Incorporated division in St. Louis, the factory announced that 21 workers out of 130 failed to come to work on Monday, December 16. Other factories in Alma, such as Alma Products, Lobdell-Emery, and Leonards, had absenteeism due to sickness, but not on the scale of DMH.

After Central Michigan University shut down, concern turned to Gratiot County’s schools, most of which tried to make it to Christmas Break without closing. On December 18, Alma Schools stated that 8 percent of students were sick (60/738); Ithaca had 50/800; Ashley had 30/200 and three teachers out. Breckenridge appeared to suffer the hardest early that week when 70/700 students called in sick. However, that number dropped to 42 students the next day. Despite the growing absenteeism, county schools remained open.

Another surprise in Gratiot County occurred when Gratiot Community Hospital closed its doors to visitors on December 20 and allowed only immediate family members in for visitation. Hospital administrator Douglas Webb commented about the change that “We just wanted to shut the door before the horses get out.”

As December 1968 went on, the effects of the Hong Kong flu stretched across the United States to the moon. President Lyndon B. Johnson went into the hospital on December 19  at Bethesda Naval Hospital with a low fever, cold, stuffy head, running nose, and rasping cough. Vice-President Hubert Humphrey contracted the flu, as did President-Elect Richard Nixon, who suffered from it while attending his daughter’s wedding. Because some schools, universities, and businesses closed early that December, airlines and bus lines expected traffic congestion to spread over the holiday break. Upon Apollo 8, astronauts Frank Borman, James Lowell, Jr., and William Anders experienced the “ping pong effect” of contracting and passing along the Hong Kong flu to each other. All the astronauts relied on Lomotil and Marezine to complete their mission.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the Hong Kong flu killed 100,000 in the United States and at least one million worldwide. The second peak of this strain hit in late 1969 through early 1970.

A year later, this pandemic and its effects were meaningful as my family dealt with pneumonia and flu during the Christmas season of 1969. My brother, only five years old, was hospitalized briefly on Christmas Eve. Doctor Waggoner sounded hesitant to let my brother go home but released him. It was the only time I could remember my paternal grandparents coming over for Christmas Eve when we always went to their house.

While not as deadly as the Influenza Epidemic of 1918, this type of flu continued to affect our lives. Five years later, in 1973, Gratiot County dealt with a new strain and challenge known as the London flu.

Copyright 2022 James M Goodspeed

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