Man commemorates flu that swept Vermont, killed grandfather
BARRE, Vt. (AP) — There is a new granite monument at Barre’s Hope Cemetery not far from a string of headstones dating to October 1918 when what became known as the Spanish flu swept Vermont, killing about 1,700 people in the state in a matter of weeks and 50 million to 100 million worldwide over its nearly three-year pandemic.
Among the Hope Cemetery headstones is one of Germinio Zecchinelli, a 35-year-old Italian immigrant who moved to Vermont to work in granite, what the area is known for. He contracted the flu early on and died just a few days later, leaving behind a wife and two young children.
His grandson, Brian Zecchinelli, commissioned the monument that was dedicated Friday.
“This tribute to my grandfather has blossomed to a tribute to 50 million others worldwide,” Zecchinelli said.
The elder Zecchinelli’s death was typical of those that took place in Barre that first week of October a century ago: He was young and in otherwise good health when he was struck down by the flu that preyed on young adults.
To this day, public officials look to the 1918 flu pandemic as a worst-case scenario of how a highly transmissible disease can be spread. Since then, there have been three more worldwide flu pandemics — in 1957, 1968 and 2009 — but none have come close to the Spanish flu.
Laura Ann Nicolai, of the Vermont Health Department, said that while vaccines, modern drugs and other technological advances would blunt the impact of a repeat, the public health community always worries about a new flu strain akin to that which swept the world 100 years ago.
“How do you really plan for people to be that severely ill with such a huge impact?” she said. “It will just easily surpass our capacity to provide medical care on the individual level.”
Believed to have started in Kansas, the 1918 flu spread from state to state and eventually across the oceans, thanks in large part to troop ships and trains headed for the front lines of World War I. It became known as the Spanish flu because wartime censorship kept newspapers from reporting the disease. In Spain, which wasn’t involved in World War I, the arrival of the flu was covered extensively.
The flu started appearing in Vermont in mid- to late-September, a week or so after the flu began to devastate Camp Devens, the Massachusetts Army base that was the location of the first major U.S. outbreak.
Barre reported about 175 flu deaths. By comparison, Burlington, which then had about twice the population of Barre, had about the same number.
So, Zecchinelli commissioned the new monument, carved by craftsmen from Rock of Ages. The nearby Vermont Granite Museum is also working on a permanent exhibit about the flu.
“This monument has rekindled an interest in that period,” Zecchinelli said. “These amazing stories are coming to the surface. They’ve often called this the forgotten flu, but with this memorial and this recognition, it will not be forgotten.”