A deadly, global viral pandemic hits Atlanta. Schools, theaters and businesses shut down to contain it. The healthcare system is strained. Businesses fight to stay open and survive. The public hears mixed messages from authorities about the severity of the illness and the tactics needed to fight it.
It may sound like the COVID-19 disease that is threatening lives and the economy today. But that news is a century old: from the 1918-1919 “Spanish flu” influenza pandemic, which is estimated to have killed at least 50 million people globally and 675,000 in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It likely came to town via World War I troops at Camp Gordon, now the site of DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in Chamblee.
It’s a history that has caught the attention of John and Dr. Ann Beach, a Buckhead couple with particular interest in the subject.
Ann Beach is a pediatric hospitalist at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite in Sandy Springs, and an adjunct professor at the Emory University and Morehouse schools of medicine. John Beach is owner of Paces Construction and is a board member of the Buckhead Heritage Society, a local history organization.
In the time of COVID-19, they’ve been reading documents in the “Influenza Encyclopedia,” a digital historical archive about the pandemic in America created by the University of Michigan Center for the History of Medicine and the university’s publishing arm.
“Some things are just the same,” said Ann. “Should we wear masks? Should we close things? What’s safe? What’s not safe? And people disagreeing about how important it is to isolate, and the struggle between business and public health. A lot of it seems like a rerun.”
In October 1918, they said, Atlanta’s health officer ordered shutdowns of the schools and businesses to halt the pandemic. Two weeks later, the mayor ordered them open – and deaths spiked again, with 14 reported in Buckhead that week, John said.
“I think it is a cautionary tale. Don’t get comfortable,” Ann said.
Adding to the tension from other businesses, the Southeastern Fair at Lakewood Fairgrounds was allowed to continue, considered relatively safe because was held outdoors, though many attendees wore masks.
In Atlanta, the influenza saw three spikes in hospitalizations and deaths between October 1918 and February 1919.
“Hopefully we’re not in something like that,” John said.
The local infections began to wane by March 1919 after authorities used quarantines of households, recommendations on cleanliness and crowd avoidance, and similar lighter measures, according to the “Influenza Encyclopedia.”
The influenza was reported to have killed 829 people in Atlanta, but the statistics are unreliable, according to the encyclopedia.
The spread might have been worse if Atlanta was not under wartime electricity-use restrictions, which limited such activities as theater-going and streetcar operations, John said.
At the time, doctors did not know the nature of the virus and did not yet have common antibiotics to treat complications. The main prescriptions, John said, were “outside air and sunlight.”
Much of the area of Buckhead and parts north were rural at the time and there is little information about the influenza’s history here. One historical footnote is that the pandemic’s victims include Waldo Slaton, the namesake of American Legion Post 140 in Chastain Park, who died in Chicago during Army service.
Now the Beaches find themselves living through another historic period with a new pandemic. And it is now personal, as Ann was scheduled to return to Scottish Rite for duty the week of March 30.
To avoid bringing the coronavirus home, Ann will use an elaborated version of her current practice of leaving work clothes at the hospital. “Ann does not bring white coats into the house” and washes “before she kisses me hello,” John said.
“Years ago, John asked me, wasn’t I afraid to take care of certain things like TB [tuberculosis] or when MRSA first hit…?” said Ann. “I said, gosh, it’s just part of my normal landscape. It’s what I do every day.”
“This one is a little bit different,” she said of COVID-19. “But if you think about it, it’s not the first time. The AIDS epidemic certainly did the same thing to healthcare workers,” though “precautions for this one seem very difficult,” she added.
It remains to be seen how hospitals will cope with an expected peak of COVID-19 patients. “Who knows what’s going to happen in a few weeks,” said Ann, echoing concerns of hospitals across the nation. “I know we are all concerned about our capacity as far as ICU beds and ventilators. … One of our big concerns is we’re pretty sure we’re going to run out of protective equipment.”
Correction: A previous version of this story gave an incorrect date for when Dr. Beach returns to duty.