PORTLAND, Ore. – History is said to often repeat itself and a researcher at Oregon State University said he’s seeing that happen now, as the omicron variant wave of the COVID-19 pandemic parallels the 1918 flu pandemic.
OSU Associate Professor Christopher McKnight Nichols published an op-ed in the Washington Post Monday highlighting the consequences cities paid in 1918 and 1919 when business lobbyists and public resistance convinced public officials to drop masking and business closures.
He said cities that kept more cautious practices in place had more success at mitigating the flu.
“For historians, it’s eerily similar,” he said in an interview. “The push-back, the resistance to closing businesses, schools, churches, mask behavior, the kinds of fines, and people were thrown in jail if they didn’t wear masks.”
He said the main difference is that acceptance or rejection of virus prevention policies didn’t map onto political parties.
He said as the world approaches the two-year anniversary of the start of the pandemic, fatigue has certainly set into communities. However, he said if history has taught us anything, it’s that public officials need to safeguard the public good.
Another parallel McKnight Nichols is seeing between the COVID-19 pandemic and the 1918 flu pandemic is that both viruses are easily spread among young, healthy people. In 1918, he said the virus spread quickly in communities with a larger military presence. He said that’s similar to how COVID-19 has spread among students at OSU.
“These infectious diseases are transmitted through the air and we’re seeing that in, you know, colleges and universities and it’s why we’ve worked so hard to prevent spread in K-12,” he said.
McKnight Nichols said based on his studies, the omicron variant might actually be an encouraging sign the virus behind the pandemic is moving toward becoming endemic, meaning COVID-19 will be ever-present but its spread and rates will be predictable rather than exponential.
Studies show infections from the omicron variant have a lower risk of hospitalization than other COVID-19 variants. McKnight Nichols said that could mean this form of COVID-19 is something that’s here to stay, but remains less of a threat to the population. He said that’s what happened with the 1918 flu – it remained present, but was less deadly and dangerous.
Still, he added, if cities and states don’t try to limit the spread of the virus that could lead to an even more dangerous surge before we reach an endemic state.
“This could get a lot worse before it gets better,” he said.