Why American life went on as normal during the killer pandemic of 1969

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Patti Mulhearn Lydon, 68, doesn’t have rose-colored memories of attending Woodstock in August 1969. The rock festival, which took place over four days in Bethel, NY, mostly reminds her of being covered in mud and daydreaming about a hot shower.

She was a 17-year-old high-school student from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, when she made the trek to Max Yasgur’s farm with her boyfriend Rod. For three nights, she shared an outdoor bedroom with 300,000 other rock fans from around the country, most of whom were probably not washing their hands for the length of “Happy Birthday” — or at all.

“There was no food or water, but one of our guys cut an apple into twenty-seven slices and we all shared it,” she said. At some point, a garden hose from one of the farm’s neighbors was passed around and strangers used it as a communal source for bathing and drinking, she said.

And all of this happened during a global pandemic in which over one million people died.

H3N2 (or the “Hong Kong flu,” as it was more popularly known) was an influenza strain that the New York Times described as “one of the worst in the nation’s history.” The first case of H3N2, which evolved from the H2N2 influenza strain that caused the 1957 pandemic, was reported in mid-July 1968 in Hong Kong. By September, it had infected Marines returning to the States from the Vietnam War. By mid-December, the Hong Kong flu had arrived in all fifty states.

But schools were not shut down nationwide, other than a few dozen because of too many sick teachers. Face masks weren’t required or even common. Though Woodstock was not held during the peak months of the H3N2 pandemic (the first wave ended by early March 1969, and it didn’t flare up again until November of that year), the festival went ahead when the virus was still active and had no known cure.

“I wish they had social distancing at Woodstock,” jokes Lydon, who now lives in Delray Beach, Florida, and works as a purchasing manager for MDVIP, a network of primary care doctors. “You had to climb over people to get anywhere.” – READ MORE

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