In early 2021, when COVID-19 vaccines started rolling out, public health folks reasonably wondered how they were going to handle the expected flood of people seeking the jab. After months of illness and death, not to mention no school, remote work, no restaurants and no Jazz games, people would obviously jam the aisles and hallways of vaccination clinics.
The Salt Lake County Health Department wisely commandeered two of the community’s most cavernous structures, the Salt Palace Convention Center downtown and Sandy’s Mountain America Exposition Center, each with plenty of room for social distancing.
Some public health planners may have read about the crowds that turned up in the 1950s and 1960s when vaccinations for polio became available.
The McCook, Nebraska, Memorial Auditorium was basically a basketball court with an elevated stage at one end and bleachers the rest of the way around, but it was still the biggest building in the county. And, on at least on one day some time in the early 1960s, it was jam-packed with parents who had brought their children to get a sugar cube laced with the oral polio vaccine.
Those parents knew about the death and paralysis suffered by many thousands of people in waves in the early and middle 20th century. One of those parents was my father.
He was struck by the virus when he was still a toddler in the late 1920s. He never was able to walk normally again. He endured multiple surgeries, most of which didn’t really help, and months flat on his back in a body cast.
There had been no vaccine for him. He, and the rest of the town, saw to it that there was for us.
So, my reaction when I went for my first COVID jab at the Expo Center in March of 2021 was, ”Where the heck is everybody? Don’t they know there’s a pandemic on?”
There still is.
The latest variant is the most transmissible yet. People are still getting sick, being hospitalized and dying. Though a mix of vaccinations, treatments, immunity from past cases and a lucky evolutionary path taken by the virus has, for now, made it so even people who contract COVID can reasonably expect to shake it off, as the mayor and the president, among others, seem to be doing.
Still, it is frightening that now, a year and a half later after the vaccines first came out, an astonishingly low 63% of Utahns are fully vaccinated (two doses) and a shamefully low 30% has received even one of the two boosters now recommended and available.
Unlike the parents of the 1960s, so many of our neighbors have been cruelly bamboozled by an anti-vaccination movement that predated COVID. Not only are a great many adults unprotected from COVID, many children are falling behind in their regimen of standard childhood vaccinations that have all but eliminated once-fatal diseases such as measles and diphtheria.
Utah’s leaders are among those who pat themselves on the back for defending vaccine avoidance as some kind of personal freedom, when really it is a horrid rejection of a basic civic responsibility that fails unless virtually all of us take part.
Polio did not stop my father from becoming the first in this family to go to college (on a state scholarship for handicapped children, delivered to his farmhouse by a one-armed man), building a career and raising a family. But, around about the age of 60, he was laid out again, for the rest of his life, by a mysterious and painful weakening of the muscles known as post-polio syndrome.
That’s kind of like what’s now being called long COVID. Except long COVID doesn’t give you a 40-year respite before roaring back. It comes and never goes. It can destroy lungs and bring unending fatigue. It damages hearts, kidneys, nervous systems, mental health and does other stuff that may not kill you but sure as heck doesn’t make you stronger.
To close a terrifying circle here, last week it was reported, for the first time in nearly a decade, the U.S. has recorded a new case of polio. It was found in an adult male in Rockland County, New York. He was apparently unvaccinated for polio, even though it has been a requirement to attend school or serve in the armed forces for decades.
That requirement, by the way, basically annihilated polio in the U.S. as far back as the 1960s. The disease was declared officially eliminated in North and South America in 1994.
But, clearly, polio is still out there. So is COVID. And just about everything that was once bad about them could happen again unless people are helped to understand the absolute necessity of getting everyone vaccinated.
George Pyle, opinion editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, is hoping someone develops a vaccine to protect people from all the lies promoted on social media.