Today, polio has almost been eradicated from the world thanks to two vaccines, one discovered by Jonas Salk; the second by Albert Sabin. The Salk vaccine was an injection; the Sabin, taken orally. Today, the vaccine is given to infants; children receive a booster when they are 4. Unlike COVID, whose main victims are the elderly, polio hit children the hardest. In 1952 during the worst polio outbreak in U.S. history, 57,000 people were infected, 21,000 were paralyzed and 3,145 died, most of them children. Parents kept their children at home, terrified they would become toddlers in leg braces or infants in iron lungs or worse end up in coffins.
I remember getting both the Salk and Sabine (sugar cubes) somewhere in San Mateo. We were in a school gym. We stood in line, received our vaccines and that was that. It seemed so easy but it turns out it was much more complicated. And one would think we would have learned something from the past as we wonder when we and our families will be vaccinated for COVID.
The Salk vaccine was announced on April 12, 1955 (FDR died 10 years earlier on April 12). But the federal government played no role in its development or rollout. It was the March of Dimes, a charitable organization founded by the paralysis ridden FDR, which funded the research which led to the vaccine and helped organize its distribution. The feds saw vaccine distribution as the responsibility of private pharmaceutical companies. When the Salk vaccine was approved, the federal government didn’t have a single injection available.
After the euphoria of having a vaccine, a bad batch from Cutter Laboratories in California caused hundreds of children and adults to be paralyzed with polio and 11 people died. When the defect was discovered and corrected, distribution of the Salk vaccine resumed but many had lost faith in it and turned to the Sabin instead. So the polio rollout also had its problems. But the glitches today have nothing to do with faulty vaccines but a disorganized and slow path to vaccinations. Not enough vaccines available or vaccines in storage but not enough trained personnel to give vaccinations. At a time when hospitals are overrun with COVID cases, nurses and doctors don’t have time to give shots to others. And each state and county is on their own.
In Los Angeles, at a time when the virus is infecting a new person every six seconds and the number of people hospitalized with COVID across the state has more than doubled in a month, the sluggish rollout of the vaccine is unacceptable. Elsewhere, seniors in Tullahoma, Tennessee lined up at night wrapped in blankets to wait for the opening of the county’s free clinic. By 10 a.m. the vaccines ran out. And similar stories from Florida and other states. Less than one third of the available vaccine doses have been administered in California. Meanwhile, the state wants to expand the sites where vaccines can be distributed including pharmacies, clinics and dental offices. Find out details at San Mateo County Health Facebook Jan. 13, 11:30 a.m.
This has not been a good start to 2021 in other ways. We have lost two amazing individuals who have played important roles in San Mateo county and beyond. Floyd Gonella set the standard for what a county superintendent of schools should be. He was the county’s education leader, respected by city councils and members of the Board of Supervisors. After three terms as education chief, he was asked to help troubled districts in East Palo Alto and Vallejo. The former superintendent of the Jefferson High School District was also a legendary football coach and player. He was a respected leader not only locally but statewide. If you wanted sound advice, you went to Floyd.
George Corey, famous trial lawyer and former San Bruno mayor and councilman, was a leader in the county’s legal aid program, worked for civil rights advocates in Mississippi and later defended protesters in the 1960s. He was also a candidate for Congress in 1979 to fill Leo Ryan’s seat. A high school football star, at the University of Michigan he was a Wolverine running back. Less known is the major role he played in bringing a downtown movie theater to San Mateo. I asked for George’s help in arranging a meeting with the Syufy brothers, owners of the former Century chain. Corey, city manager Arne Croce; planner Barbara Kautz; the Syufys and I had lunch at the old Cappelini’s. We walked around downtown, visited possible sites, and the rest is history. Gonella and Corey were both born in 1933. What a loss for their families and our community.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column appears every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.