York Town Square

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Spanish flu epidemic in York: ‘People died one right after the other’

This clip from The (York, Pa.) Gazette and Daily observes what happened on the war front “over there” in World War I. It shows part of a roll call of the 195 or more York countians who died, including George Woods (left), fighting with a machine gun unit. While those in the military were battling the Germans, the Spanish flu and other deadly diseases in France, their families back home were struggling against the flu virus, as well. Background posts: World War I bond drive: Spanish ‘Flu bug, no more than Hun, was not going to tarnish York’s perfect patriotic record’ and York’s Spanish flu epidemic of 1918: ‘It remains one of the darkest periods for White Rose residents’ and Easter in York County, 1919: Sadness, joy, hope.

York Hospital had no ambulances except a horse-drawn carriage in 1918.
That was particularly problematic in this year of the pandemic Spanish flu.
“(B)ut even if there had been one, it could not have taken all of the stricken to the hospital; there was simply no room for all of them there,” Florence La Rose Ames wrote in “That Sovereign Knowledge.”
That history detailing the hospitals first hundred years starting in 1880 made several points about the homefront flu battle:

– Spanish flu patients were treated in the fresh air of York Fairgrounds buildings. They were fresh air all right – unheated against the cold of fall. So patients were transported back to the children’s ward of the College Avenue hospital – men, women and children together. (The hospital moved to its current campus in 1930.) Tents erected at the fairgrounds were never used.
– The Spanish flu virus was relentless – and deadly. “One of the nurses at the Fairgrounds during that onslaught remembers that ‘people died one right after the other,’ ” Ames wrote.
– Doctors and nurses had only masks and gowns to protect them and worked from dawn until midnight on their critically ill patients, including sometimes 30 new cases a day.
– Treatment efforts were also impeded by a smallpox epidemic that kept out visitors and a hospital-based scarlet fever outbreak that called for staff to be quarantined.
York County suffered through subsequent polio epidemics, but none as deadly and pernicious as the Spanish flu of 1918-19.
Families were wiped out, Ames notes, with no one left to make funeral arrangements.
Back to the ambulance, or the hospital’s lack of such a conveyance.
Sometime after the epidemic, Ames wrote, the hospital board asked the city if the hospital could use their ambulance. The two parties cut a deal.
In 1980, Ames noted, the hospital had the use of more than 30 ambulance services around York County.