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A look at Atlanta’s past reaction to a pandemic


The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed tens of millions of people worldwide. In case anything can be learned from the City of Atlanta’s response to that pandemic, in comparison to today’s COVID-19, here’s a rough sketch of what happened from September, 1918 – February, 1919.

September 1918:

Camp Gordon, a dozen miles from the City of Atlanta, went under quarantine after an outbreak of the virus. By the beginning of October the camp reported over 1,900 cases, eventually resulting in 94 deaths.

October 5, 1918:

The Atlanta Constitution reports the city’s first death from the virus. The city’s health officer says that Atlanta will sure experience more cases due to the number of people traveling in from infected districts.


October 7, 1918

After the U.S. Surgeon General tells all state health officers to institute social distancing in an attempt to curb the contagion, Atlanta City Council votes to close all public places for two months, including theaters, schools, churches, and “billiard parlors.” By this time, over 100 new cases of the flu were emerging daily in Atlanta.


October 26, 1918

After many protests by theater owners and other managers about their loss of business, City Council repeals the ban on public gatherings. The ban ended up being in effect for only a couple of weeks instead of the two months originally stated.


November, 1918 – February, 1919

Deadly surges in so-called “Spanish Flu” cases in Atlanta occured each month of the winter, through February. No further action was taken by the city to close public places, even as hundreds died. By March, very few cases were being reported and the pandemic had run its course, with a high toll.

Exact numbers are unknown, but according to Census data, 829 residents died in Atlanta during pandemic over the course of those few months (city population at the time was just over 200,000). It’s probable that many other deaths during the time were attributable to the contagion, since Atlanta only reported deaths to the Census Bureau for a three week period that winter.


For a much more indepth look at the 1918 flu pandemic in Atlanta, see the city’s entry in the Influenza Archive, which provided most of the info for this post (with the Atlanta Constitution archives covering the rest).

As did other cities, Atlanta recovered from the pandemic. Likewise, we’ll recover from COVID-19. Our chances of avoiding the loss of life seen in 1918-19 seem good as long as the city’s response remains strong. This week, all restaurants, bars, gyms (and more) were ordered to close