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The pandemic drums are beating again.

As I type this (just after Thanksgiving), I’ve been seeing more and more media reports of increased concern about Asian flu. (Exhibit A: The staid New York Times, on Nov. 17, reporting “Bird Flu is Spreading in Asia, Experts (Quietly) Warn.“)

Last time a pandemic threatened the world, which would have been around 2009 or so, my place of employment prepared a mammoth contingency plan. My copy’s been sitting in a file cabinet ever since; I guess I oughta dust it off and see what it says. (It will also be good to have handy so I can throw it at the first person who exclaims, “We need to make a contingency plan!”)

Anyhow, we had a pandemic almost 50 years ago, right around this time of year. So we’ll pack up our tea and tissues and head there this week.

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The Cazenovia, N.Y., Republican goes for the seasonal spin, December 25, 1968. Front page made available by nyhistoricnewspapers.org.

According to Wikipedia, the Hong Kong flu of 1968-9 began causing trouble in the Far East in July 1968. It came to America in September — brought home by returning Vietnam War veterans — but did not spread widely until December, when it became front-page news.

An archived U.S. government site says the Hong Kong flu killed about 34,000 people in the U.S. between September 1968 and March 1969. For context, that’s 10 times higher than the U.S. death toll from the 2009 flu pandemic, but only about half as many deaths as the 1957 Asian flu pandemic.

(Of course, all of these events are dwarfed by the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, which killed 500,000 to 675,000 people in the U.S., including one or two of my great-grandparents and doubtless others on the family tree.)

For most people who got it, the Hong Kong flu produced three or four days of discomfort, with high fever, chest tightness, general body aches and fatigue.

In most places, the flu affected society in relatively small ways. The Cazenovia news article shown above (that’s in the Syracuse area, by the way) noted that school absenteeism had risen to 17 percent, and holiday mail in town had seen minor delays because eight Post Office employees had been off work at the same time.

Other areas seem to have sounded the alarm more loudly. The Massena, N.Y., Observer of Dec. 19, 1968 (that’s in the far northern part of the state, on the Canadian border), quoted the American Red Cross as calling it “a disaster situation.”

Officials in New York City estimated one in every 16 New Yorkers had had the flu in the prior two weeks, with 300,000 of them currently at “the most critical stage” of the illness. School absentee rates of 30 percent were reported in the Pittsburgh area.

(Perhaps the highest-profile flu victim: Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who was resting in Phoenix. Reports of flu are also frequent in sports reports from late 1968 — victims included Bill Russell, Dave Bing, and 20 members of the Minnesota Vikings — though it’s not specific whether these were cases of Hong Kong flu or just regular ol’ grippe.)

People over 65 were at the highest risk of dying from the disease. No surprise, then, that my 82-year-old great-grandmother was the first one at 1107 Hope Street to get a Hong Kong flu shot. (Everyone had already gotten regular flu shots in early November.)

She took the pencil into her own hand to document it:

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December 13, 1968.

Although some news reports at the time said flu vaccine was reserved for the elderly, my grandparents (in their mid-50s) and my aunt (college-age) also managed to arrange Hong Kong flu shots that holiday season.

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December 16, 1968. My grandma, Corine…

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December 17, 1968. My grandpa, Bill (a.k.a. WHB) …

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December 23, 1968. And my aunt, Elaine.

The stuff must have worked, as my grandpa’s calendars through March 1969 give no indication of anyone being sick.

Will we do so well again this year, or in the year to come? We can hope, anyway.

If not, I’ve got this big contingency plan I can read while I’m flat on my back…

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