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America's mindset recovered from Spanish Flu for 1 reason: Unity

Salena Zito on

PITTSBURGH -- Six months after a private staggered into the Fort Riley Army base infirmary in Kansas with a raging fever, chills and a sore throat, this city braced for the impact as the first wave of the 1918 flu pandemic made its way here.

It had already traveled from Kansas to Europe as troops shipped off to war and then headed back to the United States, first in Boston, then Philadelphia and finally landing here in Pittsburgh the last week of September.

Within days, the newspaper obituary page became obituary pages, and this city would go down in history books as having the highest death rate of any major city in the U.S., fully 1% of its population felled by the pandemic.

A dispatch in the New Castle Herald in the first week of October read: "Considerable increase in Spanish influenza in Pittsburgh was reported this morning by the department of health, 659 new cases being recorded in the last 18 hours. The total number of cases reported to date is 4,291."

The warning was clear for their readers from the neighboring county: Stay away from the big city.

Viewed through the prism of today's culture, this city, like many cities across the country, got few things right and a lot of things wrong, not just in their elected officials' approach to the pandemic but how it was covered by the local media. At the time, there were dozens of newspapers here, not just in English but in the languages of the numerous "old countries" of Pittsburgh's robust immigrant population.

 

Most of the flu reports in hundreds of newspaper archives from the time were below the fold and matter-of-fact.

At the onset, hospitals curtailed visitations; jury trials were canceled; there was limited elevator occupancy; and church services were not initially closed, with faith leaders instead being asked by the health department to limit attendance. Eventually, they did shutter for a month.

The public and parochial schools rarely closed, only when the attendance dropped down so far that it made no sense to keep them open. And even when closed, reports show the closings were only temporary.

Civic leaders and businesses cooperated. So did the people. The balking began the day liquor was no longer allowed to be served. Much like today's limiting of alcohol at restaurants and bars, people complained, and people snitched. A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story on Oct. 18 read, "Complaints were made to the department of health that some saloons were selling liquor with meals," adding that those cases will be investigated.

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