PRINCE ALBERT -- The first cases of Spanish flu in Prince Albert were traced to a family that had travelled to Edmonton, according to Prince Albert historian Fred Payton.

The Spanish influenza pandemic reached the city in October of 1918, not long after other large Canadian cities reported cases of it.

Payton said there is much to learn from the century-old pandemic that can help people face COVID-19.

“I think when you look back at history and see how the people of Prince Albert came through Spanish influenza so very, very well. There's a lot of hope in it.” Payton said.

Payton’s research found the public health officer reported to Prince Albert city council that 58 people died in Prince Albert in hospital or at home from the Spanish flu.

He says looking at some of the mistakes made during the Spanish flu pandemic may have repeated themselves. Payton said in 1918, Canada did not react soon enough.

“There were stories before the beginning of October in the newspaper about Spanish influenza, but they were all buried on the back pages. It wasn't until Oct. 8 that we actually saw something (about the flu) on the front pages of the Daily Herald.”

Much like today's pandemic, the situation developed rapidly.

On October 15, 1918 the public health officer advised the flu had reached Saskatoon, a day later on October 16 a Prince Albert family, who are believed to have brought the virus to the city, returned from a trip to Edmonton, Payton said.

"It was on October 17 when the first cases in Prince Albert were actually diagnosed,” said Payton.

From October 18 onward, any type of public gathering was banned.

There was a notice printed in the Prince Albert Daily Herald newspaper, paid for by the mayor on behalf of the province that stated all gatherings were forbidden.

The ban included movie theatres, pool halls, bowling allies and churches. Schools were closed.

An emergency hospital was set up in Prince Albert Collegiate Institute. None of the jails in Prince Albert suffered a casualty from the Spanish flu. Handwashing and proper hygiene were advertised. 

"There were a few cases that came into Prince Albert after the 17th of November." Payton said.

Many businesses north of the city closed down because they didn’t have any customers and they ran out of stock because supplies weren’t getting through because trucks and trains weren’t operating.

The third Sunday of October 1918 was the first churchless day according to a newspaper clipping from the Prince Albert Daily Herald. During the ban, the Roman Catholic Sacred Heart Cathedral was open for individual devotion.

The Salvation Army conducted church services outdoor and included a prayer call for those suffering from illness.

The Spanish influenza pandemic in Prince Albert lasted over a year. Public health restrictions were not lifted until the fourth Saturday of November 1919.

For Payton, these early examples of public health intervention hold important lessons for  today.

"We could see with Spanish influenza that the physical distancing that was implemented at the time really had a major impact on limiting the progression of the disease in the city of Prince Albert and in the surrounding area.”

“We know that if we follow the rules, and maintain physical distancing, stay home, wash our hands with soap and water and that we can get through this without a lot of illness and hopefully not very many deaths,” said Payton.