Discovered in the early spring, a strain of the deadly Spanish Influenza virus quickly swept the world in 1918, killing an estimated 50 million people. The doctors at that time knew little about the prevention or cure for the virus. Sufferers described symptoms as headaches, chills, fevers, sore throats, and bloodstained phlegm. Young adults, usually unaffected by this type of infectious illness, were among the hardest hit, though the strain did not show discrimination among sufferers. In one year, the average life expectancy in the United States dropped by 12 years.
Colorado Fuel & Iron Company communities were not immune from the deadly and contagious virus. Between October 1 and December 31, 1918, CF&I physicians and nurses treated 4,600 cases in the Southern Colorado mining camps, and at the Steelworks Dispensary in Pueblo.
Heightening the anxiety was CF&I’s limited medical staff, as many company doctors and nurses had volunteered to assist wounded soldiers overseas during World War I. Orders were made to the remaining physicians, nurses, bacteriologists, and pathologists to remain on duty day and night, particularly during October, when the virus was at its height.
With the limited medical staff, company officials decided that prevention was the key to avoiding further spread of the illness. They enacted strict quarantines and curfews. Coal camps that had medical dispensaries made use of them rather than sending sufferers to Minnequa Hospital in Pueblo. For the coal camps without a dispensary, the YMCA clubhouse in the community transformed into an emergency make-shift hospital equipped with clean cots and medical supplies donated by the residents. Employees’ wives substituted as nurses, cooks and dieticians. To prevent the spread of pneumonia, medical staff gave thousands of vaccinations to employees and their families at the Steelworks, mining properties and the Denver general offices, all free of charge.
The Primero camp, in Las Animas County, was one the largest and hardest hit of the mining communities. In early October alone, 104 cases of the disease appeared in one week. The demand for medical services was so great that both the dispensary and the YMCA were used in Primero as make shift hospitals. Throughout the entire scourge, 254 residents contracted the disease and were treated.
By 1919, those afflicted by the flu were back to work, and life resumed. Families returned to recreational activities at the Steelworks YMCA, and coal, iron ore and steel production continued in the steel mill as well. The deadly flu virus had mysteriously left as quickly and quietly as it had begun.