For many Americans, the novel coronavirus pandemic has generated illness-related fears that have little precedent in our lifetimes.
But 60 million Americans over the age of 70 have seen this horror show before: the polio scourge that ravaged the world’s young from roughly 1916 until Jonas Salk’s vaccination arrived in 1955.
Similarities between the epidemics that now bookend the lives of these seniors are many. Fear of an unseen enemy. Quarantined families. Social distancing. But one twist stands out.
“Today in a way is a reverse, because back then our parents were so worried for us kids and now it’s my kids who are so worried about me,” says Sue Gray, 84, who, because of COVID-19’s often deadly impact on seniors, now keeps her distance from Chicago neighbors during strolls in the park.
“But absolutely, when coronavirus hit, the first thing I thought of were those summers in the 1940s, how you couldn’t go to pools, you couldn’t go to the movies, you just stayed home,” says Gray, who as a child lived in Kansas City. “When I was in high school, a wonderful young man got polio. It was just so terrifying for us.”
Coronavirus, explained: Everything to know, from symptoms to how to protect yourself
Polio fears echo in today’s virus fears
Polio may be largely eradicated from the planet today, but in the mid-20th century, it was a frightening presence. The disease, which crippled its victims by attacking the central nervous system, was particularly active in warm months and could be transmitted easily through contaminated water.
Like clockwork, the terror would arrive around Memorial Day and wreak havoc through Labor Day. Then it would vanish like a bad storm, only to reappear each spring.
Among the more well-known names to be stricken with polio include violinist Itzhak Perlman, actor Alan Alda and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans also were impacted.
Conversations with those who lived through the nation’s polio nightmare — which during its peak in the early 1950s paralyzed an average of 16,000 people and killed nearly 2,000 each year — summon a flood of memories that inspire resilience and promise an eventual delivery from today’s madness.
“I was born in 1944 in New York, and as a child I remember the papers would post box scores of polio kids in hospitals,” says David Oshinsky, 75, a member of New York University’s history department. “There was no prevention or cure. Everyone was at risk. I had to touch my toes daily for my parents, and the slightest complaint of stiffness would send them into a panic.”
STATE BY STATE: Growth in COVID-19 cases where you live
Coronavirus curve: Will U.S. be more like China, Italy?
Oshinsky did not get polio, but he was captured by it in a different way. His book “Polio: An American Story,” which won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for History, is a tribute to those who lived through and ultimately conquered the disease, which today has been eradicated globally except in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“The bottom line is, we will see lots of social dislocation, economic upheaval, as well as some deaths, but this, too, will pass,” he says.
Rita Murphy, 91, had polio but survived. She was a high school freshman when one day she started to feel feverish and achy. She made some tea and took a few aspirin. But when she tried to walk, she fell down.
“They gave the verdict that I had polio, so I was sent to the contagious diseases hospital, which kids called the pest house,” says Murphy, who still lives in her native Chicago and currently has the help of friends and relatives to get her through today’s restrictive times.
After getting polio, Murphy eventually spent months in hospitals. She had hot compresses applied to her legs daily but avoided the dreaded iron lung, a machine that helped those whose lungs would not expand and contract on their own.
Eventually, she was discharged with a heavy metal brace supporting one foot, which could no longer support itself.
“What we’re dealing with now reminds me of that time in many ways,” Murphy says. “Like then, you have to be careful not to be in crowds and listen to what officials are saying to try and stay safe.”
Stay up to date on COVID-19 news: Get the Coronavirus Watch in your inbox
Fearing the worst in viral times
If there is one recurring theme with seniors when discussing the polio era, it is their memory of being banned from pools during hot summer months.
“I remember being so fearful of polio, and specifically about not going anywhere near a pool,” says Myrna Grayson, 89, a retired lawyer who lives in San Diego. She grew up in Cleveland and moved to Los Angeles in 1948 as polio fears mushroomed.
“When I was 18, I had a job at a hospital in admitting and then I worked for a doctor, but even though I don’t remember any polio cases, it was something always in the back of your mind,” she says. “Later, I worked for an aerospace company sorting those punch cards early computers used. I got a stiff neck one day and was petrified I had polio.”
Today, Grayson mostly stays indoors, incredulous at the empty mall parking lots she can see from the window of her assisted living facility. She goes out only occasionally to see her longtime steady, but otherwise orders food from the facility’s kitchen since dining areas are closed to residents.
“People who work here call us daily to check in,” she says.
In the summer of 1946, Keith Hull turned 8. He was the only child of two doting parents, so when concerns grew in the small town of Rock Springs, Wyoming, about the polio epidemic, his mother immediately pulled him out of school and away from his friends.
“All I remember is my mother telling me what she didn’t want, which was me playing with friends or going to the pool, so it was me playing cowboys and Indians by myself,” says Hull, 82, a retired English professor now living in Tallahassee, Florida. “That summer, a young boy of 5 named Russell was taken away by an ambulance. A few months later, he came home with braces. That hit us all.”
Hull says that at first he wasn’t too concerned with coronavirus, partly because, “I’d had people die young on me, including my mother and uncle, so I know that just happens.” But he says he’s more vigilant now about where he goes and who he encounters.
When will coronavirus end? What wartime and human kindness can tell us about what happens next
Don Bennett, 85, grew up in the small town of Holdenville, Oklahoma. While there were no polio cases in town to his recollection, “I do remember a great deal of consternation about it,” he says. “Going to the pool was verboten, so swimming was out, isolation was in. The fear of paralysis, or the iron lung, those concerns of parents filtered down to us kids.”
Bennett, who is a jazz bass player now living in Sausalito, California, says all his gigs have been canceled since eateries are shuttered. He worries about how businesses will survive, but otherwise feels he is safe with his family and his friends and his music.
With plenty of time to sit around and think, he says today’s coronavirus situation — which now has his and many other Bay Area counties on lockdown — has jogged memories of his polio-filled youth.
“All this wondering about what to avoid is so familiar,” he says. “I guess maybe in some ways we’re waiting for the equivalent of Salk’s vaccine. That hit us all like an atomic explosion. Science won.”
Science indeed beat polio in 1955. The victor was Salk, then 39, who had undertaken the challenge to find a cure some seven years earlier while at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, an effort sponsored by what became known as the March of Dimes.
In a White House ceremony where Salk received the Congressional Gold Medal, an emotional President Dwight D. Eisenhower said simply, “I have no words to thank you.”
That same triumphant moment may well come for the scientists who find a vaccine for COVID-19, giving people across generations and the world a reprieve from this global pandemic.
But, cautions historian and polio-era survivor Oshinsky, the time to celebrate won’t last long.
“The problem is that nature is always one step ahead of us,” he says. “The next virus is lurking in a bat cave or a pig farm somewhere out there. There will always be that next one, and this time we’ll have to be more prepared.”
Follow USA TODAY national correspondent Marco della Cava: @marcodellacava
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus quarantine haunts those who lived during US polio epidemic