The coronavirus pandemic is the first virus many Americans have seen that has caused widespread fear, but it brings back memories for others.
John Nanni of Middletown and Alex Vaughan of Dover are polio survivors. Diagnosed with the life-threatening disease before age 2, both have lived through the panic caused by polio and now COVID-19.
From closing schools to waiting for a vaccine, Nanni and Vaughan see many similarities and differences between the country’s reaction.
In 1953, Nanni was 10 months old and living in Binghamton, New York when he was diagnosed with polio, which paralyzed him from the neck down.
His mother gave him physical therapy, so his muscles wouldn’t atrophy. His mother’s efforts helped him walk again.
Nanni survived the virus, but his struggles didn’t end. Growing up, he was physically weaker and slower than the rest of the kids his age. Although he struggled, he knows he is one of the lucky ones.
“I’ve been very blessed. If I was born in a developing country, I wouldn’t be here today,” Nanni said.
Over the years, he has experienced post-polio syndrome — a condition that causes muscle weakness, fatigue and joint pain in polio survivors — but the 67-year-old still lives a full life.
Nanni is the president of the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend Rotary Club and Rotary District 7630 PolioPlus committee chair for Delaware and Eastern Shore Maryland. In these roles, he has spent part of his adulthood learning about the outbreak and helping eradicate polio around the world.
Just like Nanni, Vaughan’s mother was one of the reasons he was able to survive.
Vaughan said he was always an active child. When he was 18 months old, his mother began to notice he wasn’t walking around the house as much as he used to. He was diagnosed with polio, which stunted growth in his right leg.
He said most medical professionals in his community didn’t know the proper way to treat the virus, but the common consensus was rest and inactivity. Vaughan’s mother disagreed.
“I know my mother was quite the warrior,” he said. “She was one of the first proponents in our circle of friends who used isometrics to help treat me. They had no clue what to do, but she knew sitting still was not the right thing. She kept me active.”
Vaughan, now 68 years old, is the chief entertainment officer for Affinity Entertainment Delaware and is active in his Rotary Club.
Symptomatic or not
Like COVID-19, people could be contagious with poliomyelitis before symptoms appeared. Nanni said researchers didn’t know why some people who caught the virus had mild symptoms and others had extreme outcomes, including paralysis or death.
“It’s why polio was so hard to stop,” he said. “Back then, they knew less about polio than what they know now about the coronavirus.”
The poliovirus spreads from person to person, entering the body through the mouth by the sneeze or cough of an infected person or by contact with feces.
Polio — which affects the spinal cord, causing paralysis — was once one of the most feared diseases in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, polio outbreaks in the U.S. increased in frequency and size in the late 1940s and continued throughout the early 1950s. Polio outbreaks caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis each year until a vaccine was introduced in 1955.
Vaughan said panic increased throughout the 40s and 50s, but the virus had been in the U.S. for decades before then. He said media and mass communication had significantly changed — television became a predominant form of media — which allowed more people access to information about polio, how many people had it and what the symptoms were.
“We just need to look back and track [mass communication] over history and overlay that with what was happening at that time and how people were reacting to it. It all fits together,” he said.
About 72 out of every 100 people who get the virus never have visible symptoms, according to the CDC, and about one out of four people who do will have flu-like symptoms.
Vaughan said many people thought polio and the flu were the same because it was hard to differentiate between the two unless there was paralysis.
COVID-19 has hit all age groups but has affected elderly and those with preexisting conditions the worst. It was possible for all age groups to get polio, but children were infected more often.
“To this day, they still don’t know why children were susceptible to polio and adults were not, I suspect it was because they put more things in their mouth,” Nanni said.
Today, hospitals and nursing homes are not allowing unnecessary visits from family members, but this is not unique.
“I think it’s very similar with polio survivors who are telling their stories about how they felt abandoned when they were in the hospital polio wards,” Nanni said. “They went weeks without seeing their parents. When they did, it was from a far distance from behind a glass window.”
COVID-19 has shut down schools, sports, businesses, playgrounds and activities. People saw such closures during the polio outbreak.
According to the History Channel, the prevalence of polio in late spring and summer popularized the “fly theory” because most middle-class Americans associated disease with flies, dirt and poverty. The seasonal surge and apparent dormancy in winter matched the rise and fall of the mosquito population.
Nanni said public pools, Little League fields and movie theaters were closed, most towns seemed empty and parents stopped taking their children to the grocery store.
“There weren’t protests. There was a lot of fear,” he said. “When [people] had to quarantine, they did quarantine.”
Vaughan was too young to remember, but his mother told him polio “scared them half to death,” but people didn’t react in their community the way the country has today.
“My parents were in their mid-to-late 20s, and they grew up most of their lives with polio being in their everyday life,” he said. “You didn't know who was going to get it. You knew what it might do, but there is no way of knowing if you would get it.”
Nanni attributes this to limited federal and state government involvement in deciding what should be open and if people should be quarantined. He said communities would decide what should shut down depending on whether their area had a diagnosed case and if they had access to the vaccine.
“It was more local government than federal shutting things down,” Nanni said. “It was more reactive than preventive.”
Nanni said the localities did not start to reopen shuttered places until there was a vaccine.
Finding a vaccine
Researchers and health officials project a COVID-19 outbreak in the fall. The Trump administration announced “Operation Warp Speed” to accelerate vaccine development with the hope of having 300 million doses available by January.
Nanni said he is concerned with the country opening up too soon, given the lack of social distancing he still sees.
“You see these people on beaches and those protestors who are going around to these state capitol buildings and they are not wearing masks and they are all bunched together,” he said. “If you really do any research at all, scientifically, one person can affect so many people.”
Vaughan said he is hopeful doctors will find a vaccine that will eradicate the coronavirus, just like the one for polio did.
Until there is a vaccine, he said people should follow safe practices and use proper caution to keep everyone healthy.
“We are in the beginning stages of a disease that might affect people for a generation or more,” Vaughan said. “It might just be like polio in the early part of the 20th century. It might be something our people will have to learn to live with. It can hit you or miss you and that's just life.”
The CDC recommends children get four doses of the polio vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6-18 months and a booster at 4-6 years.
See also: The polio epidemic in the news