It Was A Pandemic 'Escape Community' In 1918. And Now?

Jan 21, 2021

The small town of Fletcher did notably well during the 1918 flu pandemic. How did they manage that, and how are they managing COVID?

Chris Crawford of Exeter, N.H., and Holland, Vt., asked Brave Little State what lessons can be learned from the community, which has a distinguished epidemeological history.

Note: Our show is produced for the ear. We recommend listening if you can! But we also provide a transcript below.

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The transcript

Disclaimer: Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers. They may contain errors, so please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Various voices: Hello? Hey Chris. There you are, hi! How you doing? Nice to meet you. Nice to meet you, too.

Angela Evancie: This is today’s winning question-asker: Chris Crawford. And his wife, Estee.

Chris and Estee Crawford, from Exeter, New Hampshire and Holland, Vermont.
Credit Courtesy

Chris Crawford: Yes, and this is my wife Estee, she’s we’re fans, we listen to your show.

Estee Crawford: He’s your number one fan!

Angela Evancie: And I think that *might* be true. In just a few minutes, Chris tells me how he knows a previous question-asker —

[MUSIC: "PALMS DOWN" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS"]

Chris Crawford: Maggie Eppstein was my grad school adviser. And I saw she was on a couple weeks ago, about the broadband episode, and I was like, “Holy crap!” Small world.

Angela Evancie: … he holds up a copy of my favorite, and most coveted, out-of-print book —

Angela Evancie: Oh my gosh, I’m so jealous you have Vermont Place Names, that’s amazing!

Angela Evancie: And he name-checks several episodes.

Chris Crawford: I love those episodes the one about the Confederate flags, where I could hear you guys like, running and driving and stuff like that, that was wicked cool, ‘cause you felt like you were in the backseat of the car while you guys were having that go down. Just a heads up.

Estee Crawford: Let her talk!

Chris Crawford: Sorry.

Angela Evancie: Would you like to sit down and join us, by the way? You’re more than welcome.

Estee Crawford: Well, I have to leave in a few minutes to go pick up a part for the dryer. Because it broke.

Chris Crawford: You would use term that woodchucks, right? ‘Cause we fix our own stuff.

[LAUGHTER]

Angela Evancie: It is just lovely to meet someone who loves BLS as much as I do. But also nerve-wracking. This is probably Chris’ one chance to be on the show and help shape our reporting. So Chris, I hope we can do your question justice.

[MUSIC: BRAVE LITTLE STATE THEME SONG]

Welcome to Brave Little State, VPR’s people-powered journalism project. I’m Angela Evancie. Here on the show we answer questions about Vermont that have been asked and voted on by you, our audience — because we think our journalism is better when you’re a part of it.

Chris Crawford: So there’s something that’s happening in that town...

Angela Evancie: Chris Crawford asked us a question about a tiny town with a distinguished epidemiological history.

Chris Crawford: My question is: During the 1918 flu pandemic, the town of Fletcher survived without any deaths. How did that happen? And what can we learn from it today?

Angela Evancie: You know Fletcher, right? South of Fairfield, west of Waterville?

Charles Tinker: Lot of people don’t know where Fletcher is!

Angela Evancie: We have support from VPR sustaining members. Welcome.

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A pandemic in Fletcher, back in the day

Angela Evancie: Our question-asker Chris actually lives in Exeter, New Hampshire. But he spends a lot of time here.

Chris Crawford: Right now I’m in Exeter. We do have a place up in Holland, and we’re quarantining so we can go skiing next week, so we’re camping out here.

Angela Evancie: Have you ever been to Fletcher?

Estee Crawford: We just talked about that, we should have driven down there. But it’s far from Holland.

Chris Crawford: Other than knowing one person that lives there, we have no connections. I’ve seen signs for it.

[MUSIC: "THE CORNICE" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Angela Evancie: So Chris wants to know about this town, Fletcher, that he’s never been to, that did notably well during the 1918 flu pandemic. That pandemic killed 675,000 people in the U.S. Here in Vermont, there were 40,000 cases. Fletcher had just *four* of those cases, spread out across two years. And no fatalities. And then...

Chris Crawford: ...fast-forward 100 years

Angela Evancie: When Chris looks at the state’s COVID-19 numbers?

Chris Crawford: It’s still the same case, right?...They’re not showing up in the town counts.

Angela Evancie: Fletcher doesn’t show up in the Health Department’s list of towns with six or more documented COVID cases. We’ll get back to the COVID situation later. But generally —

Chris Crawford:  What is going on there, what can we learn? 

Angela Evancie: Chris is just wondering, is there something... special... about Fletcher?

Chris Crawford: What behaviors, characteristics of the town, of the people and the microculture allows them to avoid these types of contagious viruses?

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Angela Evancie: Now when I’m talking to Chris, he mentions an article that he’d seen about this very topic. I’d seen it too, *after* his question won. It was by a different Vermont news outlet, VTDigger.

Angela Evancie: This is probably a good time for me to let you know that I actually have some surprise guests to bring into this Zoom call. It’s kind of like a gameshow moment.

[LAUGHTER]

Two people in the waiting room who I thought could help answer your question. And I guess I’ll just give it away since you’re aware of this piece it’s the two reporters from Digger who reported that.

Chris Crawford: That is really cool!

Estee Crawford: He loves the VTDigger too this is like having all these celebrities to him...

Angela Evancie: At this point Chris’s wife Estee grabs a newspaper and starts fanning him down.

Angela Evancie: Here they come, I’m gonna let them in.

Chris Crawford: This is pretty cool. This is amazing.

Various voices: Hello. Hi! Hey Chris, I’m Mike. Hey Mike, how are you? Erin. Erin, how are you?

Angela Evancie: We do some official intros...

Mike Dougherty: My name’s Mike Dougherty. I’m the digital editor at VTDigger, and I make our podcast every week, called The Deeper Dig.

Erin Petenko: And I’m Erin Petenko. I’m a data reporter at VTDigger.

Angela Evancie: And then we talk through the piece that Erin and Mike did, titled: “Fletcher dodged the 1918 flu. Does it hold lessons for COVID-19? They published it last spring.

Angela Evancie: Mike you did go there. Can you just describe it for listeners who haven’t been?

[MUSIC: "JEFFERSON" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Mike Dougherty: Yeah. It’s up in Franklin County, and it is pretty isolated. I had one of those experiences where, driving there, I had to kinda make a lot of U-turns, having realized I’ve gone the wrong way down some road or another.

That’s actually what some of the people who we talked to there talked about, was the transportation side of it. That part of the reason that it’s isolated, is because there aren’t any state routes that go through there.

Barry Doolan in VTDigger tape: Anybody who goes to Fletcher is going to Fletcher. It’s not on the way to any place.

Mike Doughtery: I talked to one guy named Barry Doolan.

Barry Doolan in VTDigger tape: And it’s still the way it is now. If you wanted to go to Cambridge, or if you wanted to go to Fairfax, you wouldn’t go through Fletcher.

Mike Dougherty: It does resemble a lot of what you’d see in a lot of other smaller Vermont towns, where you’ve got a general store with some gas pumps, you’ve got a little cemetery, a church, a municipal office building, a school, that sort of thing.

One of the things that’s unique about Fletcher, though, is that they’re all kind of spread out. They’re not gathered around some town center or some kind of green.

There are no state routes that pass through Fletcher.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

  

Angela Evancie: When I drove up there, I also got turned around. And then in the town center, it’s just… really quiet. The most exciting thing that happened when I was there? The church bells rang.

[BELLS RINGING]

Mike Dougherty: Not only is it isolated from the outside, where you don’t get a lot of people driving through Fletcher just passing by, it also, within the town, is the people are somewhat isolated, because those things that would be potential gathering places are kind of spread out from each other anyway.

Charles Tinker: ‘Course I don’t see my neighbors, just wave to ‘em…

Angela Evancie: I talked to a resident named Charles Tinker. He’s retired from a career farming and working at Aubuchon Hardware. Now he’s a lister.

Charles Tinker: And I’m president of our church, right there, president of the cemetery association, which is right there, president of the historical society, which I started a few years ago, ‘08 I think we started it.

Angela Evancie: Charles is a fourth-generation Fletcher resident. His dad was a kid here during the 1918 pandemic.

Charles Tinker: I don’t know a lot about it …

Angela Evancie: But he figures isolation had something to do with the low case count.

Charles Tinker: And I think the reason is that they were all farmers, so they didn’t go anywhere.

Angela Evancie: Of course a lot of towns in Vermont — and across the country — were isolated in this way. So what else could explain Fletcher’s seeming immunity in 1918?

Angela Evancie: Other than the sort of transportation, isolation stuff that you’ve been talking through, Mike, was there anything else that kind of came up as you were trying to dissect the reason for this? Erin, anything else that you learned in your reporting?

Erin Petenko: Well, I also believe that Vermont itself, while it was still pretty hard hit, was a little bit protected by some relatively early action on the state’s part. They declared an infectious disease spreading in their community fairly early on, and they restricted social gatherings relatively early on.

But it is one of the more interesting factors to me: How much did rural isolation and low population density play a role? Because across the country, there were plenty of very small rural communities that were absolutely devastated.

Angela Evancie: Our question-asker Chris had a follow-up to this.

Chris Craword: I guess my question is to Mike or Erin, is with regards to the low count. Sometimes you can look at a low count because things weren’t tested, because maybe it’s part of that rural lack of access to testing or facilities? Maybe more people had it, and we didn’t know about it? Could that be a contributing factor?

Is there any other patterns in the microculture with regards to the people? Do they not gather ‘cause they’re so far apart? Like the neighbors don’t know each other? Did you observe any of these characteristics?

Mike Dougherty: They had actually had a gathering there. There was a wedding kind of right smack in the middle of this period of time.

Erin Petenko: Yeah, and while their understanding of infectious disease was not as great during that time period, the 1918 pandemic had a relatively high fatality rate, so deaths are a pretty good proxy for the total number of cases in the town. So the fact that there were zero deaths suggests there probably aren’t a lot of uncounted cases.

And also, that wedding that Mike mentioned, had a soldier from Camp Devens, which was one of the original outbreaks in the entire course of the pandemic.

[MUSIC: "IDLE WAYS" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

Mike Dougherty: And there was really no reason for that wedding not to be a spreading event. It kind of just seems like they got lucky.

Erin Petenko: So it could be rural isolation in Vermont, it could be the action that they took, and it could definitely be luck. Which is kind of an odd factor to consider.

This 1918 photo shows children being cared for at the First Congregational Church in Burlington after their parents came down with influenza. That pandemic killed 675,000 people in the U.S., but the small Franklin County town of Fletcher managed to only report four cases and no deaths.
Credit Vermont Historical Society, Courtesy

Angela Evancie: Luck. And this isn’t just Erin and Mike’s theory. Their story referenced some research from the University of Michigan. It looked at so-called “escape communities” around the country that emerged from the 1918-1919 pandemic basically unscathed. Fletcher was one of them.

Mike Dougherty: We got on a call with Alex Navarro, who was one of the original researchers who had identified these escape communities. He’s the assistant director at the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, and he actually started researching this stuff back in 2005.

The U.S. Dept of Defense and then I think also the CDC, had asked his team to study the effectiveness of what they called non-pharmaceutical interventions, which are these measures that we’re now very familiar with, of things like limiting gatherings or wearing masks, these different types of things that aren’t medicine, that might have an effect on the spread of an epidemic.

And he certainly used the word “luck” multiple times in context of what happened to Fletcher.

Alex Navarro in VTDigger tape: In some respects, Fletcher was simply lucky. Probably because they were so rural and so isolated that’s not a guarantee of course. You know, these pandemics don’t always strike evenly across any nation. You know, they’re gonna hit urban centers first, because that’s where populations congregate, that’s where you have travelers, that’s where you have higher population density, people living in more crowded housing conditions.

But being a rural town or county is not a guarantee that you’re not gonna get hit by the epidemic as well.

Mike Dougherty in VTDigger tape: When you say lucky, I mean, how lucky are we talking about? Like how many other communities were like this, that completely managed to dodge cases and deaths?

Alex Navarro in VTDigger tape: So we identified six or seven of them. Some of these were not entire communities, they were really sub-communities, like Princeton University. We only found, really, Fletcher, Vermont and Gunnison County, Colorado, as well as Yerba Buena Island off the coast of San Francisco. There probably were other rural communities that did not get influenza, or were not hard-hit by influenza. But it’s incredibly difficult to find these, it’s like a needle in the haystack. These are the ones that we identified.

Angela Evancie: It’s worth noting that Fletcher wasn’t the only Vermont community to have no fatalities. Alex Navarro’s team found some areas without any cases at all. But those were really tiny towns, like a couple dozen or hundred people. Fletcher had more than 700 residents at that time.

Erin Petenko: You know sometimes I think of it as a statistical thing, like this is kind of a classic example in statistics, that if you throw a whole bunch of grains of rice on the ground, there’s going to be one section of those grains of rice that is the largest distance apart from all those other grains of rice. There might be a reason behind that, you might be able to find a reason behind that, but it’s effectively random chance. So maybe Fletcher is that grain of rice.

Angela Evancie: I perceived that our question-asker Chris was a little disappointed in this answer. I think he was looking for something more… idiosyncratic. That we could apply to *this* pandemic.

Chris Crawford: I’m gonna try to twist it a little bit here, if that’s alright, Angela. So Japan and New Zealand, they’ve been able to escape, as a much larger community than Fletcher. So what I was trying to look for at the top of our discussion, Angela, is there any microcultural type of behavior, besides just the geographical side, that you can get out of the people in that community, or how they interact with each other that represents a pattern that these other countries are following? That we all can learn from and begin to adapt?

I mean it’s obvious, right, wear a mask, protect yourself. But is there more to it than that?

Angela Evancie: Did you guys find the residents of Fletcher to be particularly anti-social?

[LAUGHTER]

Mike Dougherty:  Um, no. Not in my experience. I would say no different from most Vermonters that I would talk to.

Fourth-generation Fletcher resident Charles Tinker chats with Town Clerk Karrie Sweet on Jan. 18.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

 

Angela Evancie: So it’s a pretty simple equation. Isolation, plus general adherence to public health guidelines, pr what Alex Navarro’s team called “non-pharmaceutical interventions” … plus luck.

Mike Dougherty: Yeah. I mean there definitely was no sort of one silver bullet thing that we heard.

Angela Evancie: Coming up: Is Fletcher’s luck running out?

Sam Gillilan: My son let somebody play his PlayStation, um, and that person ended up having COVID.

Another pandemic in Fletcher, present-day

Angela Evancie: It’s Brave Little State, I’m Angela Evancie. Today we’re answering Chris Crawford’s question about the town of Fletcher, and whether there are any lessons to be learned from how well they did during the 1918 flu pandemic.

When VTDigger published its story back in May, Fletcher hadn’t had any COVID cases, either.

[PHONE RINGING]

That’s no longer the case.

Various voices: Hello? Hi, is this Sam? Yes, it is.

Angela Evancie: This is Samantha Gillilan, or Sam.

Sam Gillilan: Yes, I do believe we were the first family to get COVID.

Angela Evancie: So can you tell me the story of what happened?

Sam Gillilan: So, my son we didn’t know this at the time, but my son let somebody play his PlayStation, and that person ended up having COVID.

Angela Evancie: Sam says this was a child from a different town.

Sam Gillilan: So when he got his PlayStation paddle back, I guess that’s where he contracted COVID? And we had learned through the grapevine, in our small little town, that somebody that the other child had hung out with had been exposed to COVID.

Angela Evancie: That was in November.

Sam Gillilan: So my family all went and got tested. So my son ended up testing positive, everybody else ended up negative, which was really surprising. But before we got the test results back, we all had to quarantine alone. We couldn’t be around anybody, and obviously we couldn’t leave the house. It was a rough time.

Angela Evancie: How is your son doing now?

Sam Gillilan: Um, the main thing that he has now is, he’s really tired all the time. He sleeps a lot, and that happened when we found out that he had tested positive, too. He slept a lot.

Angela Evancie: Sam says the whole experience has been sobering. She says she doesn’t judge people for, say, wearing masks in their cars anymore, because suddenly she was doing that taking her son to get tested. And she is really worried about all the kids going through this stuff.

Sam Gillilan: Emotionally, it is going to destroy our children. This is going to destroy our children.

[MUSIC: "SUZYB" BY BLUE DOT SESSIONS]

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Angela Evancie: Sam’s son wasn’t the only case in town. According to the Vermont Department of Health, there have been between one and five cases in Fletcher during the pandemic, but no fatalities. The town clerk, Karrie Sweet, told me she’s aware of four cases total. Four cases, to remind you, is exactly how many were documented in last century’s pandemic.

Karrie Sweet: Honestly, I think that it’s kind of expected. Some of them two of them were kiddos, and they’re, you know, back to school. And then two, I believe one of them got it from work, and then of course his wife ended up with it as well. But I think that that’s an expected number for our town. I think the town of Fletcher is overall doing really well.

Alex Navarro: Yeah, you know it doesn’t really surprise me that any community, even one as small as this, Fletcher, would have a few cases.

Angela Evancie: I looped back to Alex Navarro, the researcher at the University of Michigan, to get his reaction.

Alex Navarro: My understanding now is Fletcher is not that much larger today than it was in 1918, I think there are a few hundred people more… and so of course with COVID being more infectious, the pandemic is lasting a lot longer than it did in 1918, at least the spike of it, it doesn’t surprise me, of course, that we would see some cases.

Angela Evancie: Navarro says for lots of places, it’s just a matter of time. What matters is how a community responds.

Alex Navarro: You know, if you get a few cases, those people go into immediate isolation or quarantine, if the wider community, in this case a small town, village, are generally practicing the best social distancing measures, masking, it may only be just a handful of cases.

But if they’re not doing that, then you could very quickly have, you know, hundreds of cases.

Angela Evancie: When Sam Gillilan’s son got COVID, she did not mess around. She announced it to her community on Facebook, and quarantined her family for 25 days.

Sam Gillilan: We had somebody, one of my husband’s best friends, he actually went to the store and got us everything we needed for Thanksgiving. Dropped it off outside.

Our local store that we have here, the Fletcher General Store, were so amazing. Like I literally would call, I would place an order, they would get the food ready for me, they would leave it outside, and one of us would show up with masks and gloves and we would pick it up out in the parking lot. And they did that for almost an entire month. It was amazing.

The Fletcher General Store, which proved very helpful when resident Sam Gillilan's family isolated after her son tested positive for COVID-19 in November.
Credit Angela Evancie / VPR

Angela Evancie: Sam says she also teamed up with her friend Karrie, the town clerk, for some intensive contact tracing. More, Sam says, than the state conducted.

Sam Gillilan: I wrote everybody down, I made all the phone calls to every single person that we came in contact with for like two weeks prior to this. And every single person that we were in contact with for the two weeks prior literally quarantined themselves for seven days, and then on the eighth day, everyone went and got tested, and nobody had it.

But I do believe that if we didn’t communicate and didn’t do our own investigation and let everybody know, I have a feeling it could have been worse.

Angela Evancie: That level of vigilance can *only* be helpful in a pandemic. Possibly life-saving. And maybe there is something about Fletcher that is particularly cohesive. Alex Navarro says at this rate, Fletcher might qualify as an “escape community” for COVID, as well.

Alex Navarro: They’re taking the public health measures seriously, and they manage to not have any deaths and just these four cases, then I would label it at least initially a provisional escape community. I think that’s fair.

If they’re not doing any of those things and they still only manage to get those four cases and no deaths, then again we’re talking about the luck issue. Maybe Fletcher’s just a lucky place.

Angela Evancie: It’s too soon to say. When I was in town, I talked to three people. Two were wearing masks, and one was not.

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Thanks so much for listening to the show. And thanks to Chris Crawford for the great question, and to Erin Petenko and Mike Dougherty of VTDigger for sharing their reporting. Ask a question and vote on the one we answer next at bravelittlestate.org.

This episode was edited by Lynne McCrea. Our digital producer is Elodie Reed, and we have engineering support from Peter Engisch. Ty Gibbons composed our theme music; other music by Blue Dot Sessions.

Special thanks to Sam Gale Rosen, Karrie Sweet, Aimee Tinker and Chris Lenox.

If you’re a fan of the show, you can support us with a gift at bravelittlestate.org/donate. Or just recommend your favorite episode to a friend. You can also sign up for our free newsletter here, and we are on Instagram and Twitter at @bravestatevt.