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Column: How Hall County reacted amid the 1918 flu and its second wave
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

During the current flu pandemic, there have been warnings about a second wave of the disease after relaxation of some of the restrictions imposed when government leaders finally realized this was a serious situation.

There is reason to be cautious, especially if you look at what happened during the last pandemic, the Spanish flu in 1918-19. That outbreak killed about 625,000 in the United States and an estimated 20 million to 50 million worldwide. It had begun in the spring of 1918, and health officials thought by Christmas the worst was over. Things were getting back to normal after the new year began, but by late winter/early spring, people began getting sick and dying again.

North Georgia was not immune to that Spanish flu outbreak. It didn’t reach its peak until October 1918. It got so bad that there was a shortage of caskets, and because the ground was frozen in the early months of 1919, burials had to be postponed.

Just as today, theaters, churches and schools closed. Local officials ordered a ban on any public gatherings, although some went on as usual.

School attendance in Hall County was about 50% in October 1918, and officials finally decided to close them for three weeks. They reopened after Christmas holidays, but still with poor attendance. They had to close again in February, and officials ordered all public places to shut down.

Apparently all businesses were not required to close, but some voluntarily did shut their doors. One Gainesville businessman kept his store open even when all his employees got the flu and stayed home. However, a few days later, a sign appeared on the store’s door: “Sick as hell — closed till Monday.”

There appeared to be less controversy over masks and other personal protective equipment. More attention was paid to a shortage of doctors and other health personnel, especially in North Georgia. Testing, if done at all, didn’t seem to be a big issue.

During the current pandemic, the guidelines call for social distancing, staying at least 6 feet from other people, wearing masks, self-quarantining, getting tested, washing hands frequently, using hand sanitizer, staying away from infected people, not touching your face and avoiding crowds. In 1918-19, masks were barely mentioned, especially locally. The main advice offered by health officials in Hall County was pretty simple and straightforward: “Eat wholesome food, get plenty of fresh air, and don’t spit on the sidewalks.”

Some later added, “gargling and spraying.”

The community was pretty confident the worst was over at the beginning of 1919. A local newspaper proclaimed there were very few cases “because of the efficient and prompt precautionary measures” taken by local officials. Even before Christmas 1918, the paper had pronounced the flu situation better.

Stores began offering sales. The Fair Store and others in Gainesville said prices were reduced because of a surplus of inventory caused by shutdowns in other parts of the country. Some cures were proposed, one advertised as a “guaranteed remedy” to prevent the flu for only $2.50.

But the U.S. Public Health Service cautioned about a recurrence of the sickness, emphasizing as today the danger of droplets from coughs and sneezes being inhaled by those close by. “They’re as dangerous as poison gas shells,” they warned, referring to weapons used during World War I.”

That war is said to have contributed to the spread of the disease as returning military from overseas infected others, especially in the United States. It was called the Spanish flu because it was particularly intense in that country, but just as today, while COVID-19 is said to have originated in China, it was spread to other countries around the world.

There was no official count of the dead in Hall County during the flu pandemic, but numerous obituaries during that time mentioned the flu or pneumonia as causes of death. One young couple died within a couple of days of each other.

Today’s pandemic is worse because of a Hall County population of more than 204,000. In 1918, it was about 26,000.

Spanish flu was first detected in the United States in March 1918. It would continue to kill until early summer 1919. That’s well more than a year. The hope today is COVID-19 doesn’t have that long a life.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326; email, vardeman1956@att.net or johnny.peggy1956@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.

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