Beyond Steel

By early November the epidemic had passed and Bethlehem, even with high numbers of working class people involved in an industry that predisposed people to respiratory illness, suffered only 105 dead out of a total population of about 40,000, a remarkably low number. Allentown did not fare so well as Bethlehem. Allentown passed the notification order and its own quarantine order on September 30, but the state ban on October 4 went much further and Allentown's Mayor A. L. Reichenbach delayed its implementation for four days. On October 11, Allentown had 415 cases and two deaths and Allentown Hospital, with no emergency back up, was eventually swamped with more than seven hundred cases. Dr. C. D. Schaefer, Surgeon-in-Chief of Allentown Hospital, begged the draft board to halt the induction of his doctors and further explained that twenty-eight of his nurses were so ill they could not rise from bed.[7] Pamphlets were printed in English, Italian, "Slavish" and Yiddish and distributed throughout the city to explain the dangers of the disease and what one could do to better one's chances of survival. Unfortunately, terrified immigrants who received little aid from the city sometimes fled their apartments with dead or dying relatives abandoned to their fates.

The end of the first week of November saw flu cases drop sharply in Allentown, but the damage the flu had wrought was terrible. Allentown's population was roughly 25% greater than Bethlehem, but the number of fatalities was 500% higher; out of 50,000 citizens, Allentown lost about 500. Such disparate results were a reflection of how the epidemic was handled and the resources that were available to the communities.

While Bethlehem was the consummate steel town, it had layers of protection that were either in place before the epidemic or were added to the existing health infrastructure shortly after the epidemic began. Allentown, however, rather ignored the epidemic's approach and once arrived, Allentonians had the unenviable choice of conducting themselves to a hospital that was treating patients in hallways or being cared for at home.

In an era when medical technologies were still limited in scope and effectiveness, containing an epidemic required quarantining victims and limiting all public interactions, techniques that had been used for centuries. These methods worked in spite of uncertainty about the causes and transmission of disease. In an 1882 smallpox epidemic in Bethlehem, barrels of tar were burned on street corners, streets were hosed down, and wallpaper was stripped from the rooms of the infected. These approaches probably did little good but caused no harm either. Bethlehem had considerable success in combating the Great Influenza because of the early recognition that disease had entered the community and the swift enactment of drastic measures to stop the spread of the disease. This, of course, was made possible by the military presence in the city as result of the importance of the steel mill to the Allied war effort.

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