A local hospital will design a plan to provide emergency medical care in response to a rapidly spreading disease that may kill hundreds of area residents, despite efforts to prevent the outbreak by encouraging mask-wearing and closing schools, churches and saloons.
That was the story culled from headlines in The Johnstown Tribune and The Johnstown Democrat as the 1918 influenza pandemic ravaged the region and the world.
In 2020 and 2021, history has repeated itself during the COVID-19 pandemic that has taken the lives of more than 400 Cambria County residents and approximately 550,000 people across the country.
In an effort to show the similarities while encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine and continue mitigation efforts, In This Together Cambria, the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown and The Tribune-Democrat have partnered to produce a collection of videos. The clips will tell the story of Kathleen Ocreidy Wissenschaft, a fictional immigrant mother of six children, living in Johnstown and trying to make her family and friends understand the science behind fighting the spread of the 1918 flu.
Jill Henning, associate professor of biology at Pitt-Johnstown, said the scenes show the “human side of things.”
“A lot of individuals respond better when you tell them stories of history and relate to them about what has already been done,” Henning said.
Filming occurred Saturday at the Wagner-Ritter House & Garden in Cambria City, a 19th century structure that provides a sense of “what life was like in an industrial Johnstown,” according to Richard Burkert, president and chief executive officer of the Johnstown Area Heritage Association.
“I think the project is an interesting project because it’s about a pandemic a century ago,” said cameraman Jason Bollinger. “It’s kind of ironic that we’ve been holed up and secluded for a year because of this pandemic, and here we are shooting this and we’re all together again finally, so it’s a great thing to be back in production.”
Actress Kate Davis, who plays Wissenschaft, said, “It’s amazing being able to kind of use the past and history as a way to look at what we should be doing today.”
Paul Newman, a UPJ history professor, wrote the scenes, collectively titled “We Are All in This Together,” that will be posted weekly, beginning on April 20, on In This Together Cambria and Tribune-Democrat platforms. Ten UPJ students – five from the biology department and five from history – went through old newspapers to get information about the 1918 pandemic.
The Tribune-Democrat made a mock newspaper, with real headlines, such as “SPANISH FLU MAY KILL HUNDREDS IN JOHNSTOWN” and “RIGID ORDER TO PREVENT AN EPIDEMIC,” for Wissenschaft to read.
Wissenschaft, will be the only person seen in the clips. Other characters, with no dialog, will be off-screen.
“We wanted to do one actor because COVID is a very lonely period,” Newman said. “It creates the sense of isolation and quarantines that are making us alone. But we wanted to have her interact with all these people, even though they’re not seen.”
For a brief period in December 2020, Cambria County ranked first in per-capita COVID-19 cases among all counties in the nation with 100,000 or more residents, due to having an older population and several contiguous living communities, resistance to mitigation efforts by residents and the occurrence of big gatherings, including political rallies.
By comparison, in 1918, two “super-spreader” events occurred that, according to Newman, accelerated the number of flu cases in Cambria County, where approximately 500 people are believed to have died from the disease.
“The first case of flu shows up on the 23rd of September, and on the 27th, every town in the county had a Liberty Loan drive for the war – huge parades, sing-alongs, all this stuff on the 27th,” Newman said. “By the 1st of October, it’s everywhere – some towns like 50, 70, 80%. In Barnesboro, damn near everybody got it at once.”
Then, a few weeks later, “The Tribune published an article that was speculative about the end of World War I” and “people all over the county left work and had a big celebration all night long. Two days later – Booooom! – flu all over the place,” Newman said.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 814-532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.