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Health

Project brings discussion about 1918 flu pandemic to area libraries

Mary Pickels
| Monday, Feb. 12, 2018, 9:00 p.m.
Row upon row of cots occupied by influenza-stricken patients during the outbreak of 1918.
U.S. Naval Center
Row upon row of cots occupied by influenza-stricken patients during the outbreak of 1918.
A coffin from the era of the 1918 influenza pandemic was part of a display in Westmoreland County Community College's library in Founders Hall throughout October. Donated by Jason Wilkinson Nursery in Armbrust, the coffin originally was located at a West Virginia funeral home.
westmoreland.edu
A coffin from the era of the 1918 influenza pandemic was part of a display in Westmoreland County Community College's library in Founders Hall throughout October. Donated by Jason Wilkinson Nursery in Armbrust, the coffin originally was located at a West Virginia funeral home.

The first question Thomas Soltis often hears when he speaks before public groups on the 1918 influenza pandemic is "Could this happen again?"

It's not a matter of if but when, says Soltis, assistant professor of sociology at Westmoreland County Community College.

"We will be better prepared," he says.

The second question he typically gets when discussing the global illness, which killed as many as 50 million worldwide, and approximately 1,300 in Westmoreland County, is "Where did it come from?"

It may have been a strain of avian or swine flu, and the return of World War I soldiers to America in late 1918, early 1919 may have been a contributor, Soltis says.

"You do see a spike in infection after World War I and the troops came home," he says.

They are legitimate questions, Soltis notes, as the nation copes with severe outbreaks , churches grapple with the spread of infection , and some schools across the country close in an effort to stop the flu's spread.

"The study of the 1918 pandemic gives us an idea of how rapidly a disease can arrive, spread and impact an area. The more we can learn about the 1918 pandemic, the better we can prepare for current and future outbreaks of the disease," Soltis says.

Westmoreland County Community College is partnering with Excela Health, the Westmoreland County Historical Society, the Westmoreland Library Network and the Pennsylvania Department of Health in designing an ongoing program commemorating the 100th anniversary of the pandemic.

As part of a speaker series, Soltis will discuss "Who Knew? Flu Epidemic of 1918" at 6 p.m. Feb. 20-21 at the Community Library of the Allegheny Valley in the 400 Lock St., Tarentum branch.

Seating is limited, and reservations are required by calling 724-226-0770.

Additional events will be scheduled throughout the region this year.

Ultimately, Soltis hopes to produce a publication with an accompanying video to commemorate the pandemic.

Local impact

"The 1918 Influenza Pandemic Invades Westmoreland County" summarizes the arrival, spread and impact of the pandemic in Westmoreland County. Soltis reviews the strength it took to survive and the effects such a pandemic can have.

Audiences may be surprised to learn that 39 people died in Greensburg on one day in October, 1918, or that a large number of people who died were between the ages of 20 and 40.

"It must have been terrifying," he says.

Sometimes he can offer context on a hyper local level, such as when he spoke at the Scottdale Public Library. The building stands on the site of a former YMCA that served as an infirmary during the outbreak.

"There were grave digger shortages, day to day activities were put on hold," Soltis says.

The epidemic led to industry losses as mining company and river traffic slowdowns affected production.

Church services were canceled, movies houses and dance halls closed, street car and mail delivery services were impacted.

Soltis is collecting personal stories about the pandemic's impact on local families, and has received at least 30 so far.

Writers, from near and far, tell of a grandmother who lost a child, orphans placed with family members or neighbors, widowers who buried their families and widows who went to work, their older children raising younger siblings.

"Trajectories of their entire lives were changed," Soltis says.

He's interviewed people in their 80s and 90s who were happy someone wanted to hear their families' stories.

"If we don't record them, they will be gone," he says.

Contact Soltis at soltist@westmoreland.edu to request a presentation or to submit stories.

Upcoming events will be posted to the college's website. Admission is free.

Details: westmoreland.edu/pages/community/1918-flu-pandemic

Mary Pickels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5401 or mpickels@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MaryPickels.

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