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City tries to avoid pandemic

From Print issue of March 19, 2020

Ann Belser photo
Dr. Donald Yealy, the director of emergency medicine for UPMC, addresses the emergence of
COVID-19 in Pittsburgh. Listening to him, from left, are County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, Dr.
Debra Bogen, the incoming director fo the Allegheny County Health Apartment, and Allegheny
County Health Department epidemiologist Dr. Kristen Mertz.

Schools, businesses close to stop COVID-19's spread

By Ann Belser
     As the COVID-19 pandemic gathered strength throughout the nation, Pittsburgh Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill was one of the leading indicators of what was to come.
     On Wednesday, March 11, the City of Pittsburgh canceled the St. Patrick’s Day parade scheduled for March 14.
     On Thursday, March 12, the students at Colfax were given their first coronavirus day off of the year. School officials said someone
had come in contact with a person who had the virus; the next day the school was still closed.
     By Friday afternoon, none of the children would be going back to school on Monday.
     On Saturday, the Carnegie Libraries of Pittsburgh announced a temporary closure.
     “People were leaving with bags full of books,” Denise Graham, library services manager for
the Homewood branch, said. “One mom said ‘We hadn’t taken this seriously until we heard
the library was going to close.’ ”
     Hours after the library announced it was closing, Samantha Brown of East Hills was walking around the children’s section of the Homewood library with a stack of children’s books for her daughters, Mahogany Ruple, 9, and Harmony Ruple, 6. The girls were planning to spend a portion of their unexpected time off reading.
     Saturday afternoon Allegheny County announced the first virus cases of residents here. Two people, who share a residence, one in their 70s, the other in their 60s, had been out of the area and returned with infections.
County officials would not say where they
lived, except that they are city residents; where
they had gone, except that they had been “out
of state”; or what their genders are.
     “The more information you give about
somebody and their circumstances, you can
pinpoint them because people know each
other,” said Dr. Debra Bogen of Regent
Square, the incoming director of the Allegheny
County Health Department. “Pittsburgh is a
small big town.”
     Those cases represent the first two residents
of the county to have tested positive.
     On Sunday, March 15, the county
announced that two more people have
tested positive and one is in intensive care.
By Tuesday eight people tested positive for
coronovirus in the county.
     UPMC Medical Center had been using
its own test for the virus, but the test was
not federally approved, and so the medical
center was not allowed to use it diagnostically.
However, Dr. Donald Yealy, UPMC’s chair of
emergency medicine, said the test was used
on 300 patients prior to March 15 and none
tested positive for COVID-19, indicating
that there is still an outbreak of the seasonal
     The city banned all gatherings of more than
50 people as of Monday, March 16, at 9 a.m. On Sunday, March 15, Allegheny County called for all non-essential businesses to close for 14 days, focusing particularly on any place where people gather, such as child care centers, senior centers, gyms and stores (other than groceries and pharmacies) and asking restaurants to restrict themselves to carry-out.
     Local churches and synagogues have decided to livestream their services to keep their congregations at home. Temple Beth Shalom had services on Saturday, but announced that going forward they would be livestreamed. A Bat Mitzvah scheduled for the coming weekend will be livestreamed with the synagogue open only to the family.
     The Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh held Mass Sunday and then announced that churches would close “until further notice.”
     Pittsburgh City Council held its regular meeting Tuesday morning with just Council President Theresa Kail-Smith, City Clerk Brenda Pree and Assistance City Clerk Kimberly Clark-Baskin each sitting 6 feet apart in the council chambers inside the City-County Building, which Kail-Smith announced would soon be locked.
     The other eight members attended by telephone.
     The difficulty of holding the meeting by conference call was apparent as the members addressed the declaration of a disaster emergency issued by the mayor in response to the coronavirus.
     Kail-Smith had difficulty hearing a second to the motion and there was some confusion during the vote, but it did pass.
     "We got through that one, thank God," Kail-Smith said after it passed. At the end of the meeting, after announcing that the City
County Building will be locked, but council will continue to meet by phone, Kail-Smith thanked the membership and the city workers
who made the meeting possible.
     "It's a very challenging time for the city of Pittsburgh. It's what we do: We pull together and we'll get through this."
     Social distancing has become “the new black”.
     Children were allowed to socialize — outside. Neighbors gathered for beers — outside.
     Christi Lynn and Frank Christofano’s St. Patrick’s Day party wound up on the sidewalk of Centre Avenue across from the Shadyside
Giant Eagle Market District store. Kelly
Henderson of East Liberty played bagpipes.
The Christofanos had even made a sign that
Henderson would accept donations of toilet
paper and hand sanitizer.
     Cultural events and meetings all over the
East End were canceled.
     The Homewood Children’s Village called
off its community dinner. Screening for kidney
function was canceled at the University of
Pittsburgh Community Engagement Center.
     The concert at the Church of the Redeemer
in Squirrel Hill to celebrate Johan Sebastian
Bach’s 335th birthday was postponed to an
undetermined date.
     With long lines at the grocery and liquor
stores, residents prepared to hunker down.
Cody Johns and Alex Caumo, a couple that
lives in Bellevue, traveled to Squirrel Hill to
Games Unlimited having already purchased
both toilet paper and Corona beer.
     Johns said they had games at home that
they had not yet played, but wanted to see if
there was anything else on the shelves that
struck their fancy.
     Kylie Prymus, owner of the store, said games
were going quickly, particularly “Pandemic” a
game where the players try to save the world.
     Puzzles were also a big seller for those who
expected to be stuck at home for a while.
Listing what is still open is easier: parks and
businesses. Though park facilities are closed,
the trails are open.
     Coffee shops and restaurants were still open and there were still people gathering in them. Five Points Bakery in Squirrel Hill asked customers to form a line outside so they could get in and out as quickly as possible, although some still chose to sit in the cafe section
eating, talking, or looking at their laptops.
     Bogen said the state had called for gatherings of more than 250 people to be canceled to discourage large gatherings, but the University of Pittsburgh has discouraged gatherings of 25 people.
     Local universities: Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, Community College of Allegheny County, Duquesne University, and University of Pittsburgh have shut down classes and switched them to online.
     Not everyone was heeding the warnings. On Saturday, March 14, despite the cancellation of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the South Side
was still loaded with people waiting in lines to get into bars, according to a video posted on Twitter.
     But organizations are taking the matter seriously.
     The 14th Ward Baseball league has shut down.
     Project Prom, the National Council of Jewish Women’s program to outfit girls from low-income families for the prom, was to be held on March 21, but was canceled.
     In addition to canceling or postponing events, the county has also recommended that residents not go to gyms, movie theaters, or
shopping malls.
     To mitigate the spread of germs the county has also adopted the recommendations of the state and federal governments, asking
residents to wash their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; cough
or sneeze into tissues or their elbows, not their hands; frequently clean surfaces that are
commonly touched; and to stay home if they are sick.
     Allegheny County Solicitor Andrew F. Szefi said while two cases in the county were acquired elsewhere, the county does not
yet have authority to shut down religious gatherings and businesses to prevent community spread, but if the virus does start to spread through the community the county will assess its options.
     Instead of enforcing an order, the county has requested all non-essential businesses to close, particularly stressing those where people
congregate, such as bars and restaurants, stores, salons, barbershops, community centers and gyms.
     Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all restaurants in Allegheny and three Eastern counties to close on Sunday, but extended that to the entire
state on Monday.


The chairs at the Homewood Branch of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh were flipped upside down to discourage patrons from gathering, but Samantha Brown of East Hills had an arm full of books as she picked out reading for her daughter, Mahogany Ruple, 9.


In celebration of St. Patrick's Day, Kelly Henderson of East Liberty played bagpipes across from the Giant Eagle Grocery Store with a sign that she would accept donations of toiletpaper and hand sanitizer.

Kingsley was used as a hospital during the Spanish flu outbreak

By Jan Kurth
     Until October 1918 it was easy for
Pittsburgh residents to ignore the problem.
Maybe people elsewhere were getting sick,
but not here. Of course, there were the public
health naysayers handing out the obligatory
warnings, but most people more or less
ignored them, and went about their business
without a second thought.
     And then on Oct. 4, the state health
commissioner issued an order closing all
places of amusement in the state — all the
saloons, motion picture houses, theaters, and
vaudeville houses. Local health officials were
granted the power to close schools or churches
as needed. The order seemed to take Mayor
Edward Babcock and other local officials by
surprise, and needless to say, a lot of people
were unhappy about the decision. In fact,
in true Pittsburgh fashion, wholesale liquor
dealers soon saw a surge in sales. According
to one newspaper, anxious customers were
lining up with baskets, shopping bags, and
even toy wagons.
     Not surprisingly, at least one local
newspaper denounced the closings as “drastic or freakish,” even autocratic. Why should there be a state order affecting Pittsburgh, just because there were sick people in Philadelphia?
     But as historian Kenneth A. White tells it in “Pittsburgh in the Great Epidemic of 1918,” before the ink was scarcely dry on that editorial, a 29-year-old Aspinwall man died in a hospital bed at St. Francis. On Oct. 5, Pittsburgh recorded its first fatality from what became known as the Spanish influenza (although its origins weren’t from Spain).
     No one has suggested that the current COVID-19 pandemic is nearly as deadly as the flu of 1918. But the history of that epidemic from more than a century ago does demonstrate how quickly events can get out of control without adequate precautions.
     Within four days of the first victim’s death, there were 284 cases in Pittsburgh. By day six, there were 784. Before it was over, Pittsburgh
had what the Center for Disease Control has characterized as one of the highest — if not the highest — death rates for any city in the
nation, with at least 4,500 fatalities.
     However, the 1918 flu also shows that Pittsburghers could be quite efficient and resourceful in the fight. As local hospitals
became overrun with flu patients, a plan was quickly assembled to set up emergency backup facilities. On Saturday, Oct. 12, it was
announced that the first of these emergency hospitals would be established at the Kingsley House (now known as the Kingsley Association).
     Though Major W. H. Davis, the city’s director of the Bureau of Health, literally phrased it as a “takeover,” the Kingsley House
director graciously agreed to cooperate in any way.
     “I have taken this matter up with the professional staff at Kingsley House in this city, and with that of the Lillian Convalescent Rest at Valencia, and they have unanimously offered themselves for work in any capacity,” Charles Cooper replied in an almost immediate follow-up letter.
     Now located on Frankstown Avenue in Larimer, the Kingsley House once included multiple locations including the Lillian Taylor Camp in Valencia (Butler County) and another on the Lower Hill at Fulton and Bedford streets. The Kingsley House didn’t move to Larimer until 1919.
     No time was wasted. The very next day, on a Sunday, the Pittsburgh Press announced that the hospital was being equipped and that “nurses and physicians are rapidly being installed.”
     On Monday, it was further clarified that “six truckloads of supplies from the Valencia Convalescent Home have arrived at Kingsley House, which is equipped with three wards and 57 beds. All medical supplies were at hand and the medical staff arrived early today.”
     That same day, the Pittsburgh Daily Post announced that “Kingsley House will be available as an emergency influenza hospital tonight.”
     Although the intention was to treat Kingsley House as a reserve facility, 10 patients were admitted before midnight on Wednesday, Oct. 16.
     “Kingsley House, the city’s first emergency influenza hospital, ceased to be a reserve force and became a working agency in the
fight against the epidemic yesterday,” the Pittsburgh Daily Post explained. “Its first patients were five members of a family, moved
in as a whole. They were followed soon by three others, and calls were being received through last evening.”
     Meanwhile, according to a Post-Gazette report from Oct. 17, there were “hundreds of cases in the regular hospitals,” and the number
of deaths was climbing rapidly: “The number of new cases of influenza in Pittsburgh for the 24-hour period ending at 4 o’clock yesterday afternoon was 420,” the paper tersely elaborated. “There were 69 deaths from pneumonia and influenza reported from 4 p.m. Monday to 4 p.m. yesterday . . . between 4 p.m. and midnight, 27 more deaths were reported.”
     By Sunday night, Oct. 20, the Kingsley House was in serious demand. “There was a period last night when the influenza patients actually overflowed the regular hospitals and made it necessary to to call upon the resources of the Kingsley House in earnest.” Physicians, the Pittsburgh Daily Post reported, “intimated that their influenza patients had become so great in number that they could no longer attend them at their homes, and had no choice but to send them to hospitals. One physician said last night that in six days he had had to care for 209 cases, and that from 5 to 9 o’clock last night 25 more had developed among his people.”
     Not surprisingly, “there were 19 patients at the Kingsley House last night, and the ambulances were out for more.”
     Six days later, the Daily Post stated that “the Kingsley House would be filled up as soon as there were ambulance facilities.” It was so
full that other reserve hospitals were targeted for activation, including a “projected canvas hospital” at the Washington Park playground.
     In addition, it was reported that “it is probable that the emergency wards at the Washington Park recreation building will have to be put
into service today or tomorrow.”
     By Tuesday, Nov. 26, the worst of the epidemic had seemingly passed.
     “Kingsley House has discharged its last influenza patient, and is being held now as a reserve force until the health authorities can be certain the epidemic had subsided,” the Daily Post said. “There are still 19 patients in the Washington Park recreation house.”
     By December, the Kingsley House had settled into its old routine, and was looking forward to celebrating its silver anniversary and carrying out its annual Christmas appeal.
     It was noted they had provided care for 91 patients “who would otherwise have been without proper care” and hoped that its
actions had “met with the approval of friends and supporters — even if it disturbed for a time the regular work of the settlement.”
     Fortunately, Kingsley House’s Neighborhood Day, celebrated the day before Christmas, came off without a hitch. Christmas baskets were distributed to needy families throughout the Hill District. Some of the families the Kingsley House had served in previous years declined a basket
that year, saying they were “comfortable this season.” Sadly, as was to be expected, “there were others who more than took their places,
homes where the ravages of influenza had left in its wake poverty and vacant chairs, where Christmas cheer, material and spiritual, was
     And on that wistful note, the Kingsley House’s brief history as an emergency influenza hospital came to a close.


Kingsley house0319pic.jpg

Photo from the Kingsley Annual Report via the Univeristy of Pittsburgh Library System's Historic Pittsburgh
The Kingsley Association's Kingsley House was located on Bedford Avenue in the Hill District. In 1918 it became an emergency hospital for influenza patients. According to the annual report,
"The question of this dangerous service was put squarely before the staff and every member
was a unit in volunteering for the service."

From Print issue of April 16, 2020

Pulling together while staying apart

Neighbors try to keep each others' spirits up through chalk

By Ann Belser
     From sidewalks to fireworks, as residents
stay at home to slow the spread of COVID-19,
people are reminding each other that we are
all in this together.
     Evelyn Castillo of Squirrel Hill has started
#LOVEFROMPGH, to show appreciation
to the front-line workers in the fight against
the pandemic.
     She has asked that every Tuesday at 8 p.m.
Pittsburghers show their love for the people
putting their lives on the line during the
     It is one of the ways that even as residents
are asked to stay apart to slow the spread of the
coronavirus, Pittsburgh is coming together.
As of Monday, April 13, Allegheny
County had 876 of Pennsylvania’s 24,199
cases of COVID-19. The Allegheny County
is also reporting the number of cases by
neighborhood. East Liberty had five cases,
Homewood had two cases, both listed in
Homewood North, Larimer did not have any
reported cases, Point Breeze had one case with
another five in Point Breeze North, Shadyside
had 13 cases, and Squirrel Hill had 18 cases in
Squirrel Hill South and another 12 cases in Squirrel Hill North. In nearby neighborhoods, Bloomfield had five cases, Friendship did not
have any cases Garfield had 1 case, Greenfield had 12 cases, Highland Park had 11 cases, Morningside had three cases, and Regent
Square had two cases.
     Castillo has asked residents to make noise, by clapping, cheering, ringing bells, and on the first night of the appreciation, someone
set off fireworks near her house.
     She is calling the event an “illumination-ovation” to show the love with lights and with sounds.
     She said she decided to call the event “love from Pittsburgh” because that is how a thank you note would be signed.
     Love from Pittsburgh is just one way the city has come together as a community to show its spirit.
     On Sundays around lunch time residents of Squirrel Hill have been out of their porches, greeting each other and talking to walkers.
     On Sunday, April 5, Margie Leof of Squirrel Hill was in a mask and sitting a distance away while visiting with D.J. and Elliott Oshray on their porch in Squirrel Hill. Next door to them Angela Leibowicz was on her porch with her dog, Mitzi, but she said it had nothing to do with being social, she just likes to read on the porch.
     In Point Breeze, the Point Breeze Organization has let residents know that they can sign up for a delivery of sidewalk chalk. All over the neighborhood residents are writing encouraging notes on sidewalks.
     Others are taking part in the Teddy Bear hunt, a game for children outside to “hunt” for Teddy Bears in windows.
     The Ledwich house, on Lloyd Street in Point Breeze, has an entire front window dedicated to the Teddy Bear hunt, complete with a sign that says “Teddy Bear Factory” and chalked arrows pointing the way to the bears.
     Other families are using chalk to create sidewalk exercise challenge courses. Amanda Cline’s two children, Noah, 12,
and Hannah, 8, created an exercise course with start and finish lines that could be run either
north to south or south to north on Linden
Avenue. The course had a hopscotch route, an
area for jumping jacks, circles that created a
hopping diagram and a line to follow like a
     Neighbors greet each other, but often pass
by stepping out into the street to keep their
distance from each other.
     On Tuesday night, April 7, the first night
of the illumination-ovation, Castillo walked
the sidewalk of Mount Royal Boulevard near
her house, taking photos of her neighbors
who had come out to cheer for the medical
workers, the emergency workers, city workers
and those who were deemed essential, such
as postal workers and the workers at grocery
stores, pharmacies, restaurants, and delivery
drivers who are keeping the city going.
     As she looked into the sky she spotted the
full moon.
     “Even the moon is out to celebrate with us,”
she said.


Ann Belser photo
Across the street from Pittsburgh Linden PreK-5, which is now closed because of the coronavirus, Hannah Cline, 8, uses sidewalk chalk to create an exercise course that she and her older brother, Noah, 12, can use for calisthenics


taking a break from isolating in their Shadyside home with a picnic in Mellon Park seemed like a good idea to
Jerry Dorsch, left, and Christian Mazur until they were faced with the question, "how do you eat with a mask on?"

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