Comparing the 1918 flu pandemic and COVID-19, historian sees parallels


SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — The 1918 flu pandemic, commonly known as the Spanish flu or H1N1, tore through Georgia and took hundreds of lives in Chatham County over the course of a year.

Many health officials say the coronavirus is a way of history repeating itself.

Dr. Stan Deaton, a senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society spoke with NOW about the comparisons between the 1918 flu pandemic and the coronavirus outbreak.

“In 1918 they closed movie theaters, they closed restaurants and schools, they limited public gatherings to very small numbers, everyone wore masks,” Deaton said.

He says the 1918 flu pandemic was the most severe in recent history, infecting 300 million people globally — one-third of the world’s population.

He sees many parallels between the the two pandemics.

H1N1 was first detected in the United States in March of 1918. In September, the second wave of flu peaked in the U.S.

People in central Georgia called to have businesses open back up, claiming the flu was already beginning to decline. But it was found that many cases and were not being reported.

This second wave was responsible for most of the deaths attributed to the pandemic. In September of 1918, multiple soldiers at Fort Screven showed serious signs of illness.

One hundred fourteen people died in October alone in Chatham County. October flu-related deaths made up 51 percent of the total flu-related fatalities for the year.

On October 1, 50 soldiers died in Augusta. All Georgia bases were under quarantine and ordered to wear masks, but it was too late. Many of them were already were infected with hundreds of cases.

The third wave occurred through the spring of 1919 and subsided that summer.

There were 316 total recorded deaths from the Spanish flu in Chatham County, according to the Georgia Historical Quarterly.

At this time, central Georgia was just beginning to build a public health system. It killed thousands of Georgians, and in the end, state health officials admitted they just lost count.

Macon ended mask requirements on November 6 and reopened schools on November 11. By the 20th, Macon had 104 new cases but the local government decided not to shut down again.

The University of Georgia suspended classes indefinitely during the second wave. City leaders in Atlanta shut down public gatherings for two months and limited funerals to fifteen minutes.

Georgia’s total death toll was estimated at 30,000.

Hear more from Dr. Deaton here:

“There’s always been a delicate balance between public health and public need,” Deaton said. “And people’s needs and desires to make a living. We’re always going to have to be vigilant and hope that science and technology and leadership will lead us in the right direction.”

Deaton says the biggest challenge continues to be the time required to manufacture a new vaccine.

“I think we can look to our past, in this instance, with hope, because eventually, we will get a coronavirus vaccine,” Deaton said. “Undoubtedly, the lesson to be taken from this is we’re never going to be completely free and we are a global community now.”

Another main difference between the 1918 flu and COVID-19 is mortality was high in people ages 20 to 40 years old.

There was also a shortage of medical professionals in the U.S. because doctors and nurses were serving in World War I.

Back then, there were no antiviral drugs, antibiotics or ventilators. With no vaccine to protect against the flu and no antibiotics to treat bacterial infections, control efforts worldwide were limited to isolation, quarantine, good personal hygiene, use of disinfectants, and limiting public gatherings.

According to the World Health Organization, pandemic planning has improved significantly since 1918.

Aside from the coronavirus, Deaton says the world has experienced three additional pandemics since 1918, in 1957, 1968 and 2009. These subsequent pandemics were less severe and caused considerably lower mortality rates than the 1918 pandemic.

“One thing I think we have going for us is we do have the CDC, we have the World Health Organization. We have flu vaccines, we have intensive care units, we have ventilators now,” Deaton said.

“So I think we would never see the hundred million dead, literally, that we saw at that time,” he added. “But we shouldn’t ever think that that kind of thing can’t happen again. Or to think that we’re better than that, somehow we’re smarter than those people. Because at the end of the day, we’re not.”

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