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Deadly flu outbreak in 1918 closed much of Gainesville

POSTED: May 10, 2009 1:00 a.m.

When the influenza pandemic roared into North Georgia in the fall of 1918, schools closed and some activities shut down for a few weeks.

Local newspapers were filled with obituaries of people dying from "the Spanish flu" or pneumonia, which often followed. While the elderly and children weren't immune, most of those who died were in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Among the victims was the Rev. H.F. Wood, former Hall County school superintendent and pastor of Central Baptist Church.

The disease picked up the name Spanish flu, but it probably didn't originate in Spain. Some believe it started in Kansas, but there were other theories, including the tight quarters and unsanitary conditions soldiers were exposed to during World War I in Europe. Indeed, many of the fatalities in the Great War, as it was called then, were attributed to the flu.

"If this Spanish flu did come from Germany," the Gainesville News wrote, "we hope Uncle Sam will not release his forces until he drives it back over there. It has killed more people on this side than German bullets killed on the other side, that is, of our own Army."

The flu pandemic put a damper on the good news from overseas. While many North Georgians died in battle, the war was winding down and the country would be celebrating the armistice on Nov. 11.

Gainesville schools suspended classes for a week in October 1918. Yet it would be three weeks before they would reopen. City officials ordered the one movie theater closed and banned other public gatherings.

They also shut down a carnival that was operating in Gainesville, although the Northeast Georgia Fair itself continued before orders for closings went out. In some areas, funerals were limited to 15 minutes.

Businesses suffered because workers either were sick or stayed home to avoid contact with those who might have been exposed. Potential customers stayed off the streets except for necessities.

Health officials put out warnings: "Everybody is cautioned to carefully watch the cases that develop in their homes and to begin a vigorous doctoring of such cases as soon as they break out. Spraying, gargling, etc., help to ward off the disease, and the ordinary remedies of bad colds, if used immediately are helpful in breaking up the disease in its incipiency.

"If you find yourself tired, weak and run-down . or if you catch cold easily ... you are in great danger because the germ of this disease is very catching, and you are apt to fall an easy victim if you come in contact with the germs."

The U.S. Surgeon General, Rupert Blue, advised those affected to "go home at once and go to bed." No one should sleep in the same room with an infected person, and only a nurse should be allowed to go into the room, he said. Runny noses should be mopped with gauze, which should be burned immediately, Blue wrote.

Those attending the sick not only should wear masks but a covering over their clothes, he advised.

The first week in November 1918, Gainesville officials lifted their ban on public gatherings after few new cases of the flu were reported. "... the disease has been practically stamped out here through efficient and prompt precautionary measures," the News reported. Sunday school and worship services, some of which had been suspended, had resumed, though attendance continued off.

Schools reopened with 51 percent attendance, and 43 percent of those in school had had the flu but recovered.

"It is thought that in a short time," the News wrote, "the epidemic will have been stamped out entirely. But it will be remembered for years to come as one of the worst epidemics that has visited this city in a long while."

The pandemic started in March 1918 and ended in 1919, but cases of flu were still being reported as late as summer 1920.

No official estimate of deaths attributed to the flu pandemic is available for Hall County, but it could have numbered in the hundreds throughout North Georgia. Worldwide, estimates ranged as high as 100 million.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle N.E., Gainesville, GA 30501; phone 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays. You can read his recent columns on gainesvilletimes.com



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