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Photo from the Journal and Guide, February 14, 1942

Old Newspapers To The Rescue

For those of us who are average citizens simply trying to understand the COVID-19 pandemic, from its scale to just little things that we can do or should know, it can be difficult and sometimes overwhelming. I often look to history for understanding, sometimes using old newspapers in the process, and once again, history and old newspaper articles have not disappointed, this time, when I wasn’t exactly looking for what was found.

I was looking for somewhat coronavirus-related material in archives of the Journal and Guide, a 120-year-old, African American newspaper based in Norfolk Virginia, and stumbled upon an article about a tuberculosis epidemic that was active in 1942, during the war. Somewhat related, in that I was researching a topic specific to WWII, and the fight against the new virus has been compared to an actual war. I’ve learned to scan the pages that result from my keyword searches, and this is one example of why.

Journal and Guide, February 14, 1942

From the top heading to the first article, it is clear that attention is on tuberculosis, specifically in the Black population of Virginia. Recent news and evidence has shown that just as in the cases of tuberculosis at the time of the war, cases of COVID-19 are showing a similar trend to past cases of TB. Within the United States today, in certain areas that have documented the race of those who have tested positive and/or died from the infection, higher rates of infection and/or death have sometimes been observed in non-white citizens. This writing is primarily taking a closer look at the African American and white European American populations, as they are the racial groups either primarily or exclusively referred to in the articles used. Within those racial groups as they relate to American history, another observation of past and present comes into play – systemic racism. From an April 14, 2020 opinion (and sourced) article in the New York Times, columnist Jamelle Bouie notes:

…if you look at the full picture of American society, it is clear that the structural position of black Americans isn’t so different than it was at the advent of the industrial age. Race still shapes personhood; it still marks the boundaries of who belongs and who doesn’t; of which groups face the brunt of capitalist inequality (in all its forms) and which get some respite. Race, in other words, still answers the question of “who.” Who will live in crowded, segregated neighborhoods? Who will be exposed to lead-poisoned pipes and toxic waste? Who will live with polluted air and suffer disproportionately from maladies like asthma and heart disease? And when disease comes, who will be the first to succumb in large numbers?

If there was anything you could predict about this pandemic — anything you could be certain about once it reached America’s shores — it was that some communities would weather the storm while others would sink under the waves, and that the distribution of this suffering would have everything to do with patterns inscribed by the past.

What more do we know of the history? A little more digging, and let’s look at the Piedmont Sanatorium, mentioned in the Journal and Guide article that was pictured earlier. By the way, “Sanatorium” was the name used for facilities that treated chronic illnesses, over what would usually be an extended period of time, and ironically, tuberculosis was sometimes referred to as the “white plague.” It’s always complicated.

Piedmont Sanatorium, Burkeville VA
photo courtesy: asylum projects.org

According to AsylumProjects.org, after local residents in both Ivor and Lynchburg refused to have the sanatorium housed within their limits, somehow the Virginia State Board of Health ultimately allowed the 1918 establishment of the facility in Burkeville VA, over protests of residents there, as well. From the start of its operation, education as well as treatment was expected and delivered:

An important goal of the treatment of tubercular blacks was their eventual re-entry into productive society. In 1919, Miss Helen Morris was hired as the sanatorium’s first occupational therapist. She led the patients in handicraft activities. Some patients were taught skills that they would be able to use once returning to the real world. Piedmont patients were also expected to serve as role models for tubercular blacks who could not come to Piedmont. The Piedmont staff taught their patients the proper ways to dispose of sputum and other ways to handle the ills of tuberculosis in hopes that their patients would return to their home communities and teach other African-Americans about tuberculosis. Educating the black population about tuberculosis took place both on and off the Piedmont site. Patients at the sanatorium were required to attend weekly lectures to learn more about tuberculosis. Field clinics were established to diagnose blacks in other areas of Virginia and to give advice on dealing with the disease. By focusing on the black population as a whole, rather than merely the patients who received treatment at the sanatorium, Piedmont provided widespread benefits to society.

Asylum Projects

How what could have been viewed as a progressive stance taken by the state happened, is unclear. Self-preservation (the long-term protection of state funds by spending money on the front end vs. the back end) could have been a motivator, but continued separation of the two races could have been a consideration as well. Were politics at play? That’s also a possibility. Nevertheless, the Piedmont Sanatorium served both patients, students, and society in general.

Shortly after the sanatorium opened, a nursing school for black women was established on the Piedmont site. The Nursing School at Piedmont Sanatorium offered a tuberculosis specific curriculum. The program was only for two years and allowed black women to become certified specifically in tuberculosis nursing. If these women wanted to become registered nurses, they had to complete a third year of training at St. Phillips Hospital in Richmond. The ultimate goal of establishing the nursing school for tuberculosis, it may be assumed, was to have these nurses work with the black population at large to fight tuberculosis.

Asylum Projects
Graduating nurses. Journal and Guide, June 1, 1929

Medical Science to the Rescue

Did the sanatorium make a difference? It did, but according to the following article, the writer suggests that had the states (not just Virginia) leaned more away from the political influences, and more into humanitarian efforts, the drop in tuberculosis rates would have been even greater.

Instead of treating tuberculosis medically at its source, the States have treated it politically in its course, after it was contracted. It provided two white hospital beds for white patients for every one bed provided for colored patients. To have done otherwise would have been a political risk. But while they were following the usual course of political action the scourage [sic] was spreading among both races. While the Negro’s house burned the fire men turned the hose on the white house in the next block, which was not on fire.

Excerpt: “Medical Science to the Rescue of the State,” Journal and Guide, December 11, 1954.
“Medical Science to the Rescue of the State,” Journal and Guide, December 11, 1954.
Related article about improvement of infection numbers in Norfolk VA, “Tuberculosis Fight Showing Results Here,” Journal and Guide, February 7, 1931

What Do We Know Today, Regarding COVID-19?

Regarding the novel coronavirus, at the time of this writing, scientists and medical professionals (especially to include epidemiologists) are still looking at patterns and looking for a cure. Because the information changes and/or is updated frequently, a central place to find current information is the website https://www.coronavirus.gov/. There is, however, some additional information that you may find interesting and/or helpful.

While looking at and explaining the current situation with COVID-19, scientists sometimes compare it to the flu, while acknowledging that the two are not the same. Of course, tuberculosis isn’t the same, either, but they all have the common trait of being respiratory illnesses.

In the category of “nutrients,” a journal entry published on April 2, 2020 in the National Institute of Health publication, PubMed, information is shared that a healthy level of vitamin D may be instrumental in protection against the flu and the coronavirus, as the vitamin can have a positive affect on infections, in general. Here’s an excerpt:

This article reviews the roles of vitamin D in reducing the risk of respiratory tract infections, knowledge about the epidemiology of influenza and COVID-19, and how vitamin D supplementation might be a useful measure to reduce risk. Through several mechanisms, vitamin D can reduce risk of infections. Those mechanisms include inducing cathelicidins and defensins that can lower viral replication rates and reducing concentrations of pro-inflammatory cytokines that produce the inflammation that injures the lining of the lungs, leading to pneumonia, as well as increasing concentrations of anti-inflammatory cytokines. Several observational studies and clinical trials reported that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of influenza, whereas others did not. Evidence supporting the role of vitamin D in reducing risk of COVID-19 includes that the outbreak occurred in winter, a time when 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) concentrations are lowest; that the number of cases in the Southern Hemisphere near the end of summer are low; that vitamin D deficiency has been found to contribute to acute respiratory distress syndrome; and that case-fatality rates increase with age and with chronic disease comorbidity, both of which are associated with lower 25(OH)D concentration.

Grant WB, Lahore H, McDonnell SL, et al. Evidence that Vitamin D Supplementation Could Reduce Risk of Influenza and COVID-19 Infections and Deaths. Nutrients. 2020;12(4):E988. Published 2020 Apr 2. doi:10.3390/nu12040988

Interestingly, from a different PubMed entry, an additional exerpt:

Vitamin D insufficiency is more prevalent among African Americans (blacks) than other Americans and, in North America, most young, healthy blacks do not achieve optimal 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] concentrations at any time of year. This is primarily due to the fact that pigmentation reduces vitamin D production in the skin. Also, from about puberty and onward, median vitamin D intakes of American blacks are below recommended intakes in every age group, with or without the inclusion of vitamin D from supplements.

Harris SS. Vitamin D and African Americans. J Nutr. 2006;136(4):1126–1129. doi:10.1093/jn/136.4.1126

So, maybe this journal down the rabbit hole of history via an old newspaper and medical science, is also a reason to speak with your doctor about your vitamin D level.

Stay safe, and if you find that you have more time on your hands than usual – in addition to washing your hands frequently, use them to read more old newspapers at the link provided below.

Free Newspaper Archive

Library of Congress, “Chronicling America”: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/

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