How St. Louis handled the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic can teach us a lot today

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City suffered more than most cities during the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. One local expert said that slow-moving catastrophe still has a lot to teach us more than one hundred years later.

Susan Sykes Berry, author of “Politics and Pandemic in 1918 Kansas City,” has spent years researching the impact of the Spanish flu pandemic.

That flu pandemic began in Haskell County, Kansas, and eventually killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide. In the KC area alone, 3,000 people died. This was much more than other cities, Sykes Berry said.

“In St. Louis, they did institute a pretty effective quarantine, and they think that’s why St. Louis had a much lower death rate than Kansas City did, even though the cities are pretty similar in size or were at the time,” she said.

Sykes Berry says it’s because KC political boss Tom Prendergast refused to shut down saloons and streetcars—making the death toll a lot worse than it might have been.

“It was never going to be a good, effective quarantine, but it was much worse because there were these huge swaths the public of the public that the police couldn’t do anything about it because they weren’t in charge.”

Experts believe that flu strain began in Kansas and then spread from Fort Riley to the troops in Europe during WWI.

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