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Colorado Capitol Was A Disease 'Breeding Ground' in 1918 Pandemic. Lawmakers Hope Vaccines And Plexiglass Will Help Avoid A Repeat

Scott Franz/Colorado
A portrait of former Colorado Gov. Julius Caldeen Gunter hangs in the state Capitol. A historian says Gunter had a "halfhearted" response to the 1918 pandemic and did little to encourage social distancing.

You have to go back more than a century to find another time Coloradans faced a statewide crisis as big and deadly as the current COVID-19 pandemic. But experts who studied the state’s response to the Spanish flu of 1918 say history is not repeating itself when it comes to how state lawmakers are responding to the latest outbreak.

Today, visitors to the Capitol building must wear masks and have their temperatures taken, and lawmakers sit between plexiglass dividers.

Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage

And the basement cafeteria — usually packed with lobbyists — sits empty, roped off with yellow caution tape.

It’s all because public health experts fear the Capitol building, with its stuffy rooms and big crowds, could become a hot spot for a virus just like historians say it was during the 1918 pandemic.

Derek Everett, a member of the history department at MSU-Denver and Colorado State University, says the Capitol was a more dangerous place to visit back then.

“It was the perfect breeding ground for disease and that wasn't really anything that the state officials seemed to pay attention to,” he said.

Everett said he spends so much time diving into the history of the Capitol, his wife jokingly calls it his granite mistress.

“You had people who were traveling there (in 1918-19) for all sorts of state business in ways that people don't need to, to go to the Capitol specifically today,” he said. “And all of those in-person things continued during the influenza epidemic. So, it was a was a place that drew people even more than it does now.”

He said land sales drew crowds in the building. He also said the legislature shunned social distancing and even brought in lawmakers from Wyoming to have a joint session.

Gov. Oliver Schoup went ahead with his inaugural address that brought hundreds of people inside the building. And as you might imagine - the lack of precautions had consequences.

“There was a case in the spring of 1919 where the state treasurer at the time collapsed at his desk with influenza-like symptoms,” Everett said. “And several other members of the state treasurer's office didn't have the same reaction that he did. But it was clear there was a major outbreak of it in his office. And so, they basically had to carry the state treasurer back to his home after he'd collapsed and send other employees from the office back to their homes as well.”

But some people at the Capitol were taking things seriously.

Erlo Kennedy was a doctor from the Western Slope who led the state’s public health department. He encouraged social distancing and mask wearing.

“And Dr. Kennedy did his best to try to convince people that these were things that needed to be taken seriously,” Everett said. “And state officials just kind of shrugged him off. They would almost pat him on the head and say, ‘well, OK, thanks, Dr. Kennedy. Thanks. Thanks for your input.’ And then really nothing was enforced, certainly at the state Capitol.”

After months of trying to convince lawmakers to practice social distancing, Kennedy ultimately died of complications from the flu. State historian Duane Vandenbusche said the government’s indifference to the previous pandemic meant state residents were left to fend for themselves.

“You are out there on your own,” he said. “If you don't have a job and you don't have money for food, you're up against it. You're not going to get any help from anybody.”

The virus also took a much bigger toll on the state than the coronavirus has today.

“In Silverton, they tried to call the coroner and the coroner didn't answer the phone,” Vandenbusche said. “They went down to see him, and the coroner was dead with dead bodies all around them. I mean, I don’t want to get into, you know, the how bad this thing was, but victims died within hours of the first symptoms.”

Despite the devastation, Everett said the legislature barely mentioned it when they started their 1919 session at the Capitol.

“I think that there was a sense during the influenza epidemic that it wasn't really something that the state government needed to treat as seriously as we've taken the coronavirus pandemic today,” he said.

Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
Colorado lawmakers in the House of Representatives observe a morning prayer on Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

Fast forward to today, and pandemic relief is a top focus for Democratic House Speaker Alec Garnett as lawmakers start a new session that was postponed for a month by the coronavirus.

“Our job as legislators this year is to level the playing field and give Coloradans the tools and resources they need to forge this recovery on their own,” he said.

Lawmakers will debate a stimulus proposal worth $1 billion. It would provide free diapers to cash-strapped parents, fund major road projects and expand broadband to more parts of rural Colorado, among other things

And unlike 1919, most lawmakers were vaccinated ahead of this session. But in one way history is repeating itself – mask wearing is not required for lawmakers inside the building.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.