A woman in line at the mass vaccination station in Mobile, Alabama, stopped short when health officials began asking her for personal information. When they requested her age, she got up and walked out.
"Nothing," she said, "is worth telling that."
That wasn't 2021. That was 1962, and she had been in line to receive a polio vaccine.
Many of the foibles of today's mass vaccination process for the coronavirus were experienced 60 to 65 years ago or so with the polio vaccine (first with the Salk inoculations, then the Sabin oral vaccine).
As much as we'd like to delete everything from the current virus from our memory banks, we should realize the process to be able to do so is a marathon and not a sprint.
Yes, we know we're somewhat comparing apples to oranges, but consider the following:
' Where cars line up along Amnicola Highway for their occupants to receive the coronavirus vaccine, Hamilton County first- and second-graders lined up in April 1955 outside the Warner Park Field House to receive what was then the first of two injections for the polio virus, a scourge that often crippled people for life.
The first school student to receive the shot, according to Chattanooga News-Free Press reporter T. Grady Gallant, was Ronald Branum of the Vine Street Orphans' Home. Ronald, he reported, didn't cry.
Elsewhere, Billy Joe Dobbins of Clara Carpenter School said, "I like them shots," but second-grader Martha Butler said, "This is the arm I write with, and it's going to fall off."
- Just as today with delays in the number of doses, Hamilton County school children in 1955, who were supposed to get their second vaccine a month after the first as part of Operation Needle, had to wait until October because of concerns about the vaccines and glitches in what we today call the supply chain.
That October, though, as in April, local candy manufacturers assuaged the sore arms with free candy for those who braved the injections.
- If the rules for just who can get the vaccination today are confusing, they kept changing a half century ago, too. The ages health officials in 1955 said should get the shots moved from 5 to 9 to 1 to 9, then 1 to 14, along with pregnant mothers. By the summer of 1956, teenagers from 15-20 were added. At the end of that year, it was suggested adults should get the vaccinations.
A 1961 program for the remaining vaccination skeptics in local public housing units was called "Protection for Babies and Breadwinners."
To all skeptics — 40% of Americans earlier in 1961 hadn't been vaccinated — evangelist Oral Roberts, in a message at Warner Park, said, "When the polio vaccine was discovered, thousands of people in the name of Christianity refused to let their children be vaccinated. How ridiculous. I had my children vaccinated with the serum. It came from God."
- Of course, what would a plan to vaccinate Americans be without politicization? Where this year Democratic presidential candidate and then President-elect Joe Biden and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris did their best to throw cold water on the White House's Operation Warp Speed to achieve a vaccine, Democrats did the same thing in 1955.
Both Adlai Stevenson, who would be the 1956 Democratic presidential nominee, and Sen. Estes Kefauver, D-Tennessee, who would be the 1956 vice presidential candidate, criticized the Republican Eisenhower administration over its efforts. And then former President Harry Truman, in a Cleveland, Ohio, speech, said the administration was "bungling" the vaccine program.
The latter set off Joe King, who was a partner in Moore and King, a Chattanooga pharmacy. Rather than the Eisenhower administration, he said in a Chattanooga News-Free Press article, it was the previous Truman administration who had taken over the distribution of gamma globulin, which was given in massive doses to those afflicted with polio.
In turn, he said, "the large pharmaceutical manufacturers of Lilly, Lederie and Sharpe, and Dohme scrapped all the plans they had for building large laboratories for mass production of this drug to supply the demand." As a result, it was more than two years before the drug went back on the market to help those with exposure to polio.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Emanuel Celler, D-New York, presaging a desire for single-payer health care more than 50 years in the future, demanded government control of the Salk vaccine. The voluntary system, he said, has "the making of a national tragedy" because "no system of voluntary controls can work when the natural protective instincts of parents are fiercely awakened."
Now, we believe vaccines should be produced and ready yesterday for anybody who wants one. We don't want to wait, and we don't know why hundreds of nurses aren't strolling up to our cars in order to inject us.
With the polio virus, by December 1962, about seven and a half years after the first public Salk vaccines were administered, only 40% of Tennessee children under 5 were protected, and the number of adults who'd had the shots was still very low.
We don't imagine it will take that long for the coronavirus vaccine, but we should exercise a little patience. As a country, after all, we've been here before.