Sixty-four years ago, residents of this tiny town in southwestern Kansas set a public health example by making it 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.
“A lot of people still believe it [COVID-19] is made up and that it’s not as bad as the media is saying,” says Steve Herd, a 72-year-old farmer who was in the third grade on the day that virtually every resident of Protection under age 40 got a polio shot.
Today, some in the town of about 400 people 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, Herd says.
In 1957, Herd says, “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.
That event, sponsored by what was then known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (now the March of Dimes), received widespread media coverage.
The Herd family was front and center. Herd, his parents and four siblings were chosen to ride on the main float in a celebratory parade, he says, because they looked “average” and because his sister, Cheryl, had survived a bout with polio.
“Mom made us special shirts so we would look good for the occasion,” he says.
Six decades later, the town’s role in kicking off the polio vaccination campaign remains a point of pride memorialized by a small monument in front of the old post office.
“We were an example,” Herd says, “of everybody coming together to try and do something good.”
Stan Herd is two years younger than his brother, Steve. An artist renowned for distinctive crop and landscape works, he now lives in Lawrence, where the University of Kansas is located.
Recalling the event, he says 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 can’t imagine the community coming together in a similar way in 2021.
“Not a chance,” he says. “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 run deep in Protection and the surrounding Comanche County. Even with COVID-19 cases rising late last year, county commissioners refused to enforce Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s statewide mask order.
“The big difference between 1957 and 2021 is that the polio vaccination event was apolitical. The COVID vaccine has gotten political,” says David Webb, a retired teacher and unofficial local historian, who also participated in the mass vaccination event as a grade schooler.
The county has a population of just over 1,700 and has recorded 153 COVID-19 cases and nine deaths. Because of the timing of some of those deaths, the county recently appeared atop a national list of COVID-19 hot spots.
That, says 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.”
Enough, she says, to temporarily skew the numbers in a county with such a small population.
The health department is getting a “good response” to a survey on its website that doubles as a vaccination sign-up sheet, McKnight says. But she’s also getting lots of questions from people skeptical of the vaccine.
Some are worried about safety, given that it was developed so quickly.
“That’s a big concern,” she says.
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 3 in 10 (31%) say they will “definitely get” the vaccine, compared with 4 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.
“Yeah, I hear that,” she says.
People believe false information spread on social media, she says, because it 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 says, “but it absolutely did.”