Athens’ First Pandemic: 1918

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Oct 8, 1918: Athens Banner
article on outbreak of Spanish flu pandemic

It may seem to many of us that the pandemic and the consequent
closings and regulations are a bizarre first in the history of the
United States and Athens, but this is not the case. The Great
Influenza epidemic of 1918 spread over the country by fall of
that year, along with fear and panic. As a Grenada, Mississippi
newspaper reported, “The young and old alike have furnished
victims for the influenza . . . Death stalks abroad at all times and
at all hours.” Known as “the Spanish flu,” it was history’s most
calamitous infectious pandemic to date, killing five percent of
the world’s population. The disease was marked by rib-cracking
coughing spells, intense pain, and the skin turning a deep blue.

Athens, Georgia, was not spared. According to the Athens Banner,
October 8, 1918, , an ordinance went into effect on October 7,
at 7 pm closing all of the city’s “moving picture establishments,”
pool or billiard rooms, amusement halls or tents, schools,
churches and Sunday schools. All public gatherings were also prohibited until further notice. The only exception was necessary war work, as World War I was still raging abroad.

Andrew Cobb Erwin, the mayor of Athens at the time, ordered a strict enforcement of an anti-spit ordinance on the sidewalks of the city and in all
public places. Physicians were required to report all cases of influenza within 24 hours of diagnosis. If no physician was available, this became the responsibility of the head of the household. Photos show people wearing masks.

However, the 1918 quarantine in Athens was much briefer than today’s
and apparently the city suffered less. According to the Athens Daily Herald, Nov. 1, 1918, the quarantine was lifted on Nov. 2. The Athens Board of Education voted for the schools to have only one week of Christmas break to make up for lost time as a result of the quarantine. According to the December 3 Athens Banner, Christmas vacation began on Dec. 20, 1918, and ended on Dec. 30. Between 800-1,000 people in Athens had been infected with influenza, but only 17 died. “Compared with other cities, this showing is remarkable both for the relatively small number of cases and for the extremely low death rate,” the paper said.

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