Regional impact of 1918 flu pandemic in Western Pennsylvania continued into following year

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Mar. 13—Closings of schools, taverns and movie theaters, along with warnings against large gatherings, aren't new in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

On Oct. 4, 1918, communities debated how to enforce statewide restrictions as the region was hit hard by a second wave of a global influenza pandemic that ultimately claimed about 2,000 lives in Westmoreland County, at least 4,500 in Pittsburgh and an estimated 650,000 across the nation.

Readers of that day's edition of the Valley Daily News were informed that "all clubs, moving picture houses, theatres, dance halls, pool rooms are ordered closed until further notice" in Tarentum, while it was up to teachers to determine whether any of their students were showing signs of illness and should be kept home.

With flu spreading in New Kensington, a local board of health on Oct. 16 ordered all local church services discontinued — a ban that was lifted Nov. 17. While the Oct. 22 Daily News reported "no great increase of influenza cases in Natrona and Brackenridge," George H. Dickey, the latter community's health secretary, asked parents to "keep the children at home and off the streets" as a preventive measure.

By Oct. 23, the Greensburg Daily Tribune reported every school in Westmoreland County was closed. More than 50 patients were being treated in an emergency hospital at a local country club, while flu cases were said to be on the rise in Delmont, Export and Youngwood as well as in area mining towns including United, in Mt. Pleasant Township, and Webster, along the Monongahela River, where more than 100 were sick.

The October peak in area outbreaks of the so-called Spanish flu came a little earlier than the post-Thanksgiving spike seen during the current covid-19 pandemic. But, as with covid-19, the health and economic impacts of the flu pandemic extended into the following year.

Area entertainment venues remained closed for about a month. The Nov. 9, 1918, Greensburg Daily Tribune advertised reopening of the Strand Theatre, with screen star Norma Talmadge in "Her Only Way." Patrons were assured the theater "has been thoroughly renovated, painted and decorated, insuring clean and sanitary arrangements."

The Pittsburgh Daily Post noted many theaters and some saloons in that city jumped the gun, opening Nov. 4, after Mayor E.V. Babcock defied state officials and, citing "a depression and a pall that seriously retards the recovering to normal conditions of health, business and recreation," advised the local director of public health not to enforce the state restrictions. The theaters closed again two days later, after the state filed misdemeanor charges.

On Nov. 10, the Pittsburgh paper reported staff and resources were being withdrawn from local emergency hospitals, although the city reported 312 recent cases of the flu, raising the cumulative total to more than 19,000, including 82 deaths. Cases in Allegheny County stood at more than 62,000.

In early 1919, the region celebrated the return of servicemen from World War I and braced for the pending arrival of Prohibition. Meanwhile, school, church and civic functions were back in full swing.

Youngwood's churches and the local YMCA held a "father and son" banquet Feb. 14. A similar March 14 event at Tarentum's YMCA attracted 216 people.

After a pandemic hiatus, a South Greensburg school held its first parent-teacher meeting of the year, on Feb. 26, with a program featuring teachers and students.

On March 7, several hundred people attended a gathering of Westmoreland coal producers at the county courthouse. The following day, former President William Howard Taft headlined a lecture in Latrobe's high school auditorium on the question of whether the United States should join the League of Nations.

But area communities weren't yet free from the deadly clutches of the "Spanish lady."

The March 3, 1919, edition of the Greensburg newspaper noted influenza was "still bad in some places," causing the closure of three schools in Derry Township. While the disease had newly affected "a number of persons in Greensburg," there were an estimated 1,000 cases in Uniontown.

On March 11, the Daily Tribune reported the Westmoreland County Child Welfare Bureau was seeking foster homes for more than 1,100 children orphaned by the flu, noting "half of those who will require especial care are children whose ages range from 3 months to 6 years."

Thomas Walton, 19, son of a dairy operator south of Greensburg, died March 26 after suffering from "flu followed by pneumonia." All seven members of the family and a servant were confined to bed with the flu, according to the Daily Tribune.

With far less known then about influenza than is known today about covid-19 and other viral diseases, druggists in 1919 touted various treatments for the flu and related symptoms. A Greensburg ad recommended iron-containing Bio-feren as a tonic to combat weakness after a bout with the flu, to "put energy into both body and brain."

The New Kensington Kut Rate Store advertised cod liver oil as a post-flu tonic, reducing the price from $1.25 to 87 cents.

Pandemic-related shortages also were noted. On March 7, a Greensburg ad proclaimed "the shortage of Vick's VapoRub, which has lasted since last October, is now overcome," with production ramping up to more than 1 million jars per week.

Natrona apparel retailer Philip Scholnick advertised a Jan. 25 "Influenza Epidemic Sale" in the Daily News. Cutting the price from $1 to 69 cents for children's dresses and from $1.50 to 89 cents for men's "flanelette" shirts, he indicated the store was "sacrificing a year's gains to raise four months' bills," noting "the epidemic has played havoc with business for the past four months. We are thousands of dollars behind."

Looking to the future, the Harrison Township Health Board on Feb. 4 endorsed proposed construction of a road to Natrona Heights, noting "much unnecessary suffering was caused during the recent influenza epidemic" because doctors were faced with "roundabout routes" to reach patients.

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, jhimler@triblive.com or via Twitter .