Residents of Protection, Kansas, came together in the spring of 1957 to make their town the first in the nation to be fully inoculated against polio. Today, like many rural communities, the town is divided over how to fight COVID-19.
PROTECTION, Kansas — Sixty-four years ago, residents of this tiny town in southwestern Kansas set a public health example. They made their town the first in the nation to be fully inoculated against polio.
It’s a different story today.
People in Protection, like those in many rural communities, stand divided over how to slow the spread of the coronavirus and the safety of the vaccines being rolled out to protect them from it.
“A lot of people still believe it (COVID-19) is made up and that it’s not as bad as the media is saying,” said Steve Herd, a 72-year-old farmer who was in the third grade on the day virtually every resident of Protection under 40 got a polio shot.
Some in the town of about 500, he said, insist that the federal government “invented” the coronavirus so that it could force people to take a vaccine containing a microchip that could track their movements.
In 1957, Herd said, “we didn’t have people who believed such crazy stuff.”
Protection steps up
Protection’s “Polio Protection Day” took place on April 2, 1957. Families, many dressed in their Sunday best, lined up in the high school gym to get shots from nurses dressed in starched white uniforms.
“There was a lot of excitement that day,” said David Webb, a retired teacher who also was in grade school at the time.
That event, sponsored by what was then known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes), received widespread media coverage. So did a parade that took place a couple of weeks later when residents received their second doses of the vaccine.
The Herd family rode on the main float, Steve Herd said, because they looked “average” and because his sister, Cheryl, had survived a bout with polio.
He recalls playing catch with his younger brother, Stan, while his father read the paper and smoked a pipe and at the front of the float.
“Mom, I think, was either standing like she was cooking or she was knitting,” he said.
Stan Herd said there was no debate about the vaccine or the town’s role in promoting it. Everyone thought: “This is what we’re supposed to do.”
Steve Herd still lives on the family farm near Protection. Stan Herd is a Lawrence artist known worldwide for his distinctive crop and landscape works.
Steve Herd can’t imagine the community coming together in a similar way in 2021.
“Not a chance,” he said. “It would be impossible because we’d all take sides.”
The political fault lines that have complicated national and state efforts to contain the coronavirus also run deep in Comanche County. With COVID-19 cases rising late last year, county commissioners opted out of Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask order.
“The big difference between 1957 and 2021 is that the polio vaccination event was apolitical,” Webb said. “The COVID vaccine has gotten political and that’s too bad.”
The county has a population of just over 1,700 and has recorded 152 COVID-19 cases and eight deaths. Because of the timing of some of those deaths, The New York Times recently listed the county as a COVID-19 hotspot.
That, said Jerri McKnight, director of the Comanche County Health Department, wasn’t accurate “because the data was pulled when we had three deaths in a one-week period.”
That was enough to temporarily skew the numbers in a county with such a small population, she said.
The health department is getting a good response to a survey on its website that doubles as a vaccination sign-up sheet, McKnight said. But she’s also getting lots of questions from people concerned about the vaccine.
Some are worried about safety given that it was developed so quickly. “That’s a big concern,” she said.
A recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that people living in rural areas are less willing to get the COVID-19 vaccine than those living in cities and suburbs.
Only three in ten (31%) say they will “definitely get” the vaccine, compared to four in 10 people in urban and suburban areas.
McKnight is also hearing from people who believe one or more of conspiracies circulating about the vaccine, including the one about the tracking chip. People believe them, she said, because the information comes from sources that many trust in a county that President Donald Trump carried with 82% of the vote.
“I hate to say that it got pulled in with politics,” she said, “but it absolutely did.”
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim (at) kcur (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.