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Yuletide Epidemic


The American Red Cross labeled a nationwide flu epidemic a "disaster situation" on this date in 1968. The organization called on public schools and colleges throughout the country to close for winter break earlier than scheduled if respiratory illnesses appeared high. The 1968-69 flu season was the last recorded flu pandemic in the United States; it was caused by a genetic change in the Influenza Type A strain, resulting in the Hong Kong flu.

Jamestown College decided to close a week early on the advice of the school's physician. One-sixth of the student body, or nearly a hundred students, were suffering from the flu, and the private school's administration feared that keeping the school open would only endanger the rest of the students and faculty. As a private college, the Jamestown institution had slightly more freedom to act, and was one of the first schools to close in the state. Final exams were cancelled and professors issued final grades. Two basketball games went on as scheduled.

Throughout the nation, Americans feared infection as flu cases rose. Hospitals cancelled visitation hours, and visitors to nursing homes were restricted in all areas of the country. New York City was the hardest hit; Edward O'Rourke, the city's Health Commissioner, estimated that 500,000 New Yorkers had recovered from the flu in the previous two weeks and that an additional 300,000 were still infected. With nearly a ninth of its population already infected, public events were avoided by most, and many of the streets emptied of their usual holiday shoppers.

The country still waited for the worst, however, as health officials predicted the flu to peak around New Year's Day. Although many prepared to travel for Christmas, some decided to remain at home for the 1968 holiday season. Over 34,000 Americans died during the outbreak, but over one million deaths resulted worldwide. The fact that the flu peaked during the holiday break, when many children were home from school, is believed to have saved tens of thousands of lives. In 2006, North Dakota's Department of Health and Human Services was given $654,000 in federal funding in order to prepare for a future flu pandemic. The money was part of a $100 million funding package for the entire country.

Dakota Datebook writtem by Jayme L. Job


The Fargo Forum. Tuesday, December 17, 1968: p. 11.

The Fargo Forum. Wednesday, December 18, 1968:p. 2.