During the Cold War, the greatest fear in America was the bomb.
In a close second place was polio.
Everyone was at risk, children especially, but also teenagers and adults. Polio returned every year, usually during the summer. There was no prevention and no cure.
People got sick, some got very sick. Many lost the use of their legs, their arms, or both. Many lost the ability to breathe, and some lost their lives.
Americans were terrified.
But on an unremarkable Tuesday in April 1955, everything changed.
Church bells rang and factory whistles blew. Across America, people ran into the streets weeping.
In all caps, newspaper headlines shouted: “THE VACCINE WORKS.”
After two years of trials, it was certain: Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine worked.
In the next few days and weeks, store front windows were shoe-polished with “Thank you, Dr. Salk.” Local parades featured floats celebrating the defeat of polio. President Eisenhour choked up when he met Dr. Salk at the White House.
For decades, Americans saw polio as a shared tragedy. In the wake of the Depression when philanthropist money dried up, ordinary people mailed in dimes to fight polio. Literally tons of dimes.
It was the March of Dimes that funded Salk’s research.
Volunteers organized an unprecedented two million American children in the largest vaccine trial ever completed. Smiling kids posed for photos wearing “Polio Pioneer” buttons.
No wonder Americans were proud.
They saw themselves as part of a group. Americans cared not only for their own children, but for America’s children. They were a public that cared about public health.
Americans have Covid fatigue. We are tired, just tired of it. We are appalled by the record deaths and the packed ICUs and the exhausted medical staffs and the damaged economy and the never-ending social distancing.
But then, hope.
It began with front-line medical staff smiling through their masks, giving weary thumbs-up in vaccine selfies on social media. Then more medical staff. More selfies.
And we loved it. We cheered and hit “like” and a lot of us teared up with every posting.
March 2020 seems like a million years ago. We now have two vaccines that are 95% effective, and we can’t get them into arms fast enough.
I received my first dose of the Moderna vaccine at a mega drive through at Texas Motor Speedway. Drones and helicopters flew overhead, and the media was about with mics and cameras.
Volunteers and paramedics and medical staff were there by the hundreds, waving and smiling and chatting, and all the while maintaining efficiency like you just can’t believe.
People were rolling down their windows and waving and thanking the staff and the volunteers.
I witnessed the same scene at a mega center in Dallas where my 82-year-old mother-in-law received her first jab. Big smiles everywhere. Organization, volunteers, hopefulness, thankfulness, celebration.
As more and more of us are called in for our jabs, social media selfies have not abated. It’s our twenty-first century version of church bells ringing and factory whistles blowing.
Vaccine rollout has not been problem-free, nor was the celebrated polio vaccine rollout. Some vaccination sites run with the efficiency of a Chick-fil-A drive-through, while other sites struggle.
But we are hopeful. And our civic pride is showing.
We cheer, we take selfies, we heart the photos. We delight in the stories: the medical team, stalled on a highway in a blizzard with a soon to expire supply of vaccine, going car to car, vaccinating every willing arm; the hospital in California rushing against time to vaccinate their community after a freezer failure; the health care workers made honorary Super Bowl captains.
I am vaccinated for myself, sure, but it is so much more:
I am vaccinated because I want to protect my neighbors living in crowded conditions, my neighbors for whom “working from home” is not an option, my newborn neighbors, my immunocompromised neighbors, my elderly neighbors, and my teacher neighbors.
I am vaccinated because I want to be a responsible member of the herd. It’s how I love my neighbor as myself.
Let the church bells ring.
It’s not a Polio Pioneer button, but I love my pin!
Staff and volunteers at Texas Motor Speedway.
RNA saves the day!
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.