President Donald Trump announced on Friday that he tested positive for Covid-19 and he is not the first seated president to contract a highly contagious and potentially fatal virus in the middle of a pandemic.
Former President Woodrow Wilson contracted the 1918 flu while in Paris in April 1919, organizing a peace treaty and the League of Nations after the First World War.
Wilson was not a healthy man and "always frail," said Howard Markel, a doctor and medical historian at the University of Michigan. He would continue to have symptoms like a headache, high fever, cough and runny nose, Markel said. Many of Wilson's aides would also catch the flu, including his chief of staff, he added.
Trump tweeted overnight that he and First Lady Melania Trump tested positive for the coronavirus after the White House confirmed that Aide Hope Hicks tested positive and had some symptoms.
Trump had "mild symptoms" after testing positive for the coronavirus, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows confirmed to reporters on Friday morning. The announcement came hours after the government confirmed that White House worker Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus.
For Wilson, "the virus took its toll," said Markel. "That can have neurological and long-term complications. And he was already traveling at the time and living on a train and making five to ten speeches a day. That is not healthy."
When he returned to the US, Wilson went on a whistle-stop tour to have the League of Nations ratified, which ultimately failed, Markel said. During his tour, Wilson got thinner, paler and more frail, Markel wrote in a column. He lost his appetite, his asthma got worse and he complained of relentless headaches, he added. He would have a bad stroke later.
"After that, his wife basically took over the presidency," he added.
Many infectious disease experts and medical historians drew other parallels between 1918 and today. Schools and shops were also closed and infected people were quarantined a century ago. People were also resistant to wearing face masks, calling them dirt traps and some cut holes so they could smoke cigars.
Several US cities have implemented mandates, calling them symbols of "war patriotism". In San Francisco, then Mayor James Rolph said, "[C] Science, patriotism and self-protection require immediate and strict compliance," according to influenzaarchive.org, authored by Markel. But some people refused to obey or take them seriously, Markel said.
"A woman, a lawyer from the city center, argued to Mayor Rolph that the Mask Ordinance was 'absolutely unconstitutional' because it was not enacted by law, and that as a result, every police officer who had arrested a mask mockery , is personally liable ", so influenzaarchive.org.
As with Trump, some reports and historians have suggested that Wilson downplayed the severity of the virus. But Markel said that was "a false and a false trump card in popular history".
The federal government played a very minor role in American public health during this period, he said. Unlike today, there was no CDC or national health department. The Food and Drug Administration existed but was made up of a very small group of men.
"It was primarily a city and state role, and these agencies hardly played it down," said Markel.
Unlike today, Wilson did not get sick when he was re-elected, Markel said. He said the public needs to know "how healthy or not healthy" Trump is before the November 3rd election.
"If you vote for a president now, you may actually be voting for the vice-president," he said. "Because what if Trump falls ill because of Covid between Election Day and January 20 and becomes unable to work or worse? Well, then the Vice President-elect becomes President."
"I'm skeptical of the importance of him being clear, open and honest – or his doctors – about his health conditions. But it's critical," said Markel.