Get in Line and Roll Up Your Sleeves
As I watched videos of the first COVID-19 vaccine being administered throughout the country this month, I remembered the moment, 65 years earlier, when I trooped from my second-grade classroom to the “sick room” at the my little school in rural West Virginia.
It was April 21, 1955. The U.S. government had declared the Salk vaccine safe and effective for use nine days earlier. All of us in my town of Bethany and the rest of Brooke County had been alerted to the availability of the vaccine through a story in the Wheeling (W.Va.) Intelligencer, which appeared under the headline “Brooke Youths to Get Polio Vaccine Today.” In fact, the story ran on Tuesday, April 19, but the first and second graders in Bethany were at the end of the county’s line and had to wait until Thursday for our turn.
That morning my classmates and I filed nervously in the stuffy room off the balcony above the tiny gymnasium in the three-story building that served all grades, 1 through 12. Once there, we were greeted by a hypodermic-wielding nurse who assured us in her soothing nurse voice that it wouldn’t hurt a bit. Yeah, right.
Like most of the country, my parents were celebrating this historic breakthrough. But they weren’t the ones getting the shot. I was. And I’m pretty sure it did hurt a bit. Of course, we all had to suck it up and hold back any tears, not with our friends watching.
Plus, we figured the momentary pain would be worth it if the vaccine did, indeed, end the fear of polio and give us back our summers. The threat of polio had elicited panic bordering on terror in those days. Summer was “polio season.” Outbreaks started around Memorial Day, causing many public places to close down. (Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?) No public swimming pools. No movie theaters. Even when we were allowed to go outside and play with our friends, we were cautioned about getting too tired or too close (early social distancing?), and we were called home every afternoon to take a nap. Imagine. The indignity of an eight-year-old being forced to nap!
I complained that my parents were unreasonably strict, but I knew it was because a young woman in our neighborhood had contracted the dread disease and now wore heavy metal braces on both legs and needed crutches to walk.
The vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk just up the road from us at the University of Pittsburgh, was breaking news. Day by day, the paper published announcements as schools all over the area began to offer the shots, which were given for free and required only parental permission.
The story about the vaccinations in my county included a relevant statistic:
Of 1,403 students in Brooke County who were eligible for the shot, 1,225 had signed up for it. That translated to 87 percent who choose to take the vaccine with 13 percent declining.
For comparison’s sake, a recent Quinnipiac poll shows that 61 percent of Americans currently say they’ll take the COVID-19 vaccine while 33 percent won’t.
Although my parents weren’t giving me a choice in the matter, I couldn’t imagine why anybody would pass up the polio vaccine since it meant we’d get our summers back. There wasn’t such a thing as an “anti-vaxxer” or at least I’d never heard the term.
Naturally there was a level of anxiety associated with the polio vaccine. Two weeks after I got my shot, unsettling newspaper stories told of a girl in Idaho who’d been paralyzed after receiving the vaccine. Her paralysis began in the arm in which she had been vaccinated, not in her legs. My mom started asking me to move my arm up and down several times every day, just to check. Those cases, primarily west of the Mississippi, were quickly traced to bad batches of the vaccine from one particular company. Once the government rechecked the other vaccines for safety, the program was resumed. My mom stopped pestering me about my arm.
I understand why there’s anxiety about the COVID-19 vaccine. The speed with which this vaccine was produced is unprecedented. That, alone, can give one pause.
Then there was the unfortunate politicization of the vaccine, especially during the presidential campaigns when it seemed the pharmaceutical companies working on the vaccine might be facing undue pressure to meet an artificial deadline.
Personally, I never believed scientists would ever cut corners or fudge data to placate a presidential candidate. And yet, one study concluded that if an announcement of an approved vaccine had come one week before the November election, it would have significantly decreased people’s willingness to take it.
Now that the campaign over (mostly) and after the Federal Drug Administration has provided extraordinary transparency in its examination of the Pfizer data, I’m counting on Americans to roll up their sleeves and get in line.
For my part, I’m eager to take my turn this time around.
Are there risks? Of course there are. But when I weigh risks of the vaccine against the opportunity to visit my grandchildren for the first time in a year, I’m choosing my grandchildren.