With all the discussion of pandemics, there seem to have been few references to the polio epidemic of the mid-20th century. Each summer it struck without warning, killing some, leaving others in iron lungs or crippled for life.
We didn’t know the cause. We heard of nearby neighbors in an iron lung. We gave up our trips to a community swimming pool or theater. Group activities were out.
It terrified us and put me, then 12 years old, in a hospital room with no roommate, no parental visits and quite unhappy.
The spinal tap or lumbar puncture test for polio was more intense and time-consuming than the COVID-19 nose swab, and I’ve been told that missteps sometimes resulted in the crippling of patients who may not have had the disease. For me, it simply made sitting on hard surfaces painful for years when the doctor who performed the diagnostic spinal tap had some difficulty. (We were unaware in those years of drug-dependent physicians.) At any rate, he was unable to confirm or reject a diagnosis.
Without that, the hospital didn’t want me exposing other patients in a regular ward if I had polio or, on the other hand, putting me in danger of getting the disease from those who had been diagnosed with it. So at 12 years old I was isolated and alone in a room on the hospital’s polio floor.
Almost exactly 69 years and another pandemic later found me in solitary confinement again.
Hospitalized with hyponatremia last summer, my first COVID-19 test was negative, but after some temperature spikes, another was positive. I landed in a pandemic room by myself, although not feeling any symptoms. Unlike the experience years earlier, this time there was television, a daily newspaper, a telephone for contact with family and a lovely view of town.
Two subsequent COVID-19 tests were negative and I’ve been home with no aftereffects for about six months.
Also unlike seven decades ago, vaccine development has occurred much more rapidly. The epidemic in my youth occurred in the 1940s and ’50s, killing more than one-half million worldwide while a search for a vaccine accelerated. The vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk, first tested in 1952, was finally introduced to the world in 1955, four years after my scary summer.
We greeted it with relief, just as the majority of us welcomed news of the COVID-19 vaccines.
This month my husband and I and most of our neighbors in this retirement community had the first of the two doses of vaccine (Moderna, in this case), given because we were in the right place and at the right age.
Yet we remain concerned about distribution decisions regarding the still-limited vaccines.
Is it truly appropriate to favor the elderly over teachers, working parents and other front-line workers? True, many of us have underlying conditions but we are in the evening of our lives.
Perhaps more importantly, research released early this month by a multinational group of scientists reported that of more than 10 million individuals in the United States, 72.2% of infections originated from individuals 20 to 49 years old. More specifically, the 20-34 age range contributed to 34% of infections and the 35-49 segment contributed to 38.2% of infections.
The researchers suggested those groups should be the first to receive vaccines.
On the other hand, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows that COVID-19 is deadliest among older populations. Through Feb. 3, 93% of the pandemic deaths nationwide have occurred among people 55 or older.
So we understand the concern of Susan Crowley, a 75-year-old retired lawyer in Hood River, Oregon, who was quoted in an Associated Press story as shocked that her state had announced plans for the vaccination of teachers before senior citizens.
“I look at these figures and I am literally afraid. It’s not just a question of missing beers with my friends. It’s a question of actually being afraid that if I am not careful, I will die,” she said. “The thing that is so upsetting to me is that seniors don’t matter, the elderly don’t matter. And it’s painful to hear that implication.”
I don’t see it quite that way, but I’m glad not to have to make the decisions. I’m also hopeful that the roll-out of vaccines will accelerate. Last Thursday Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top federal infectious disease expert, predicted that by April “virtually everybody and anybody in any category could start to get vaccinated.”
In the meantime, we have masks when in groups or close to other people outdoors, social distancing, limited contacts except by Zoom or other interactive meetings.