The Great Flu Pandemic of 1918: Somerset and Cambria County’s battle with a terrible disease
(This is the second part in a two-part series about the 1918 flu pandemic. It was the deadliest flu in modern world history.)
With winter coming on, doctors held out hope that the flu would stop spreading. But it continued to grow worse. Hundreds of new cases were reported daily as the month of October went on. As news of the war came back to Johnstown, most felt that the war was nearing its end. In October, a false message of victory reached them. They congregated by the thousands on the street, which made doctors and health officials fear a greater spread of the deadly flu.
The entire northern part of Cambria County was placed under quarantine. Many of the doctors and nurses were close to collapsing from exhaustion. Mining communities throughout Somerset and Cambria counties were particularly devastated. Mines were idle.
Women played an important role during the whole ordeal. Volunteers filled nursing positions. Local women received extensive training if they volunteered. Mrs. George W. Dibert, chairwoman of the Division of Women in Industry of the Women’s Committee of the Council of National Defense, implored them to help.
“In scores of homes there is no one to the bring in supplies of food, no one to do the fundamental and essential housework, and no one to see that the patients receive the attention prescribed by doctors,” she told a local newspaper. “People are dying through lack of a little care and attention. There is no one on hand to render this aid.”
The American Red Cross played a large role in helping patients, helping to secure seemingly countless beds.
Several thousand employees at the Cambria Steel Co. were inoculated with an anti-influenza serum. The local supply of the vaccination was exhausted by the first day’s treatment of the men who got it.
The flu complicated the local draft board’s job as well. They had to delay calling up some men as they were battling the Spanish influenza.
One of the side effects of the flu epidemic was a decrease in crime. Many people were not drinking alcohol because the saloons had closed, and so crimes related to it were down. Emergency responders were still challenged by a staff shortage. Fire departments had call-outs for more men.
Doctors speculated on how long the epidemic would last. Based on other communities, they estimated it would take six to eight weeks for cases to drop or disappear. But as November approached, the number of people afflicted by the Spanish flu steadily increased.
Some families lost multiple members. John and Gertrude Dare Hipp lost both their son and daughter.
Towns that were along the railroad were particularly devastated. Much like airports today, they were places where contagions spread rapidly. The worst of the epidemic was along the Pennsylvania Railroad.
All Halloween parties were cancelled by order of the local board of health.
Somerset County was hit hard. More than 1,300 cases were reported in October. Meyersdale was hit hard with 156 cases. Johnstown received patients from many of the mining towns in the area, and a lot of those who came to the hospitals died as they fought the affliction.
When November rolled around, political pressure caused the mayor and city council officials to push for a lifting of the emergency ban placed on various forms of commerce as a way to reduce the spread of influenza. Thousands of dollars had been lost by saloon and theater owners, among others, because they couldn’t serve the public. They lifted the health ban in the first week of November.
Influenza became deadlier when people caught pneumonia too. And it became more likely as the weather turned colder and wetter. State medical inspector W.E. Matthews said he wanted to warn people against too much optimism.
“The most dangerous time of all is right now, when the disease is disappearing,” he said. “There is always the possibility of people letting up in their precautions or not taking the precautions that are so necessary in checking the spread of the disease.”
Gallitzin and Portage continued to get more cases, even as the situation in Johnstown improved. Doctors wanted people to take precautions even if places of amusement were reopened.
The disease spread quickly after the ban was lifted.
“People evidently are forgetting our warning to take precautions and have been made negligent by the lifting of the ban,” he said. “Evidence of this is the fact that a number of new cases have been reported today and that the situation is much worse in some quarters.”
The territory between Lilly and Gallitzin seemed to be the storm center, it was reported in the Johnstown Tribune. The federal government placed a ban on amusement places in several towns in the southern section of the county. Soon the situation grew twice as worse as it had been before the state ban was lifted. The death rate was very high.
Toward the end of the month, authorities began to believe it was letting up. The city council voted to accept a modified quarantine that would close the theaters and saloons again to prevent further spread of the disease. Overcrowding in public places would be reduced by police officers patrolling the city and dispersing large groups of people.
The quarantine was effective in curtailing the spread of the disease. By early December, it was reported that the number of Spanish influenza cases was on the decline.
The flu also caused a teacher shortage in county schools. The superintendent announced a recruiting effort to fill the positions.
Women went shopping in the downtown district during the day as Christmas approached. So when the men got off work at the mills, there was congestion at the local trolley station. Officials told women that they had to get out of the shopping area by 4:30 p.m. so as to avoid similar situations.
People who violated the quarantine regulations were arrested and heavily fined by the mayor.
Christmas charities were also affected by the crisis. Toy Mission, which gathered toys for impoverished children, discontinued its efforts for that year because of the Spanish flu.
The death rate for December was 229 for Johnstown. As the winter progressed, the flu slowly disappeared and newspapers carried fewer accounts about what was happening with it. The regulations were removed and the flu guards were dispersed in December. A few flare-ups happened but nothing on the level of what happened in October and November of 1918. The holidays brought about some growth in cases because of the crowds gathering for celebration.
To reduce the chance of flu epidemics now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone get a flu shot, which will be available in the fall. No information is available on the exact date. Ron Miller, a pharmacist at Findley’s Pharmacy in Somerset, said vaccines are 30 to 40 percent effective at stopping the flu from developing.
“Everyone who gets it . . . it saves a lot of lives,” Miller said. “Even with that percentage, a lot of people die and it prevents the spreading. Everyone should get it, but especially the elderly.”