Long Islanders who survived polio epidemic compare it to COVID's wrath

In the 1940s and ‘50s, when Wantagh resident Barbara Kitay was growing up in Bethpage, she lived in a world that feared the contagious paralysis-causing polio virus that targeted young children, saw implementation of social-distancing and sheltering-in-place measures and trusted that medical science would one day stamp out the dreaded disease known as the "crippler."

Three-quarters of a century later, the novel coronavirus is triggering familiar feelings in Kitay, 75, and other Long Islanders of a certain age. The children of the polio era are now seniors who are part of a high-risk group facing fear of an unseen enemy, and are once again, living through an age of social distancing, hand hygiene and quarantining — hallmarks of the polio epidemic.

Nevertheless, those feeling a sense of déjà vu say having survived or lived through polio in their youth did not adequately prepare them for the fear and uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. For the most part, they say, their panicked parents shielded them from what was a little-known disease that struck without warning, leaving some paralyzed and others dead.

"When COVID was first spreading and they were talking about preparing a vaccine, it rang a bell that they had made a vaccine for polio that wiped out the disease," said Kitay, who was part of the national field trials at age 8 to test the safety and effectiveness of the Jonas Salk vaccine in 1954.

"Because of COVID, I have my groceries delivered, I sanitize things before they come through the door and have isolated myself and my two daughters I live with from people," Kitay said. She added that only in the past couple of months she has allowed brief visits with vaccinated friends and family. Yet as her pandemic-related anxiety began to let up, COVID-19 cases began rising again.

Experts say polio survivors and those who lived through the dark days of the epidemic see shades of the 1940s and ’50s in today’s pandemic.

"There was enormous fear associated with both polio and coronavirus," said historian David Oshinsky, director of the division of medical humanities at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Polio: An American Story" (Oxford University Press, 2005). "Most of the patients in both epidemics showed no symptoms. The vast majority of polio survivors didn’t have symptoms or had a minor case that looked like muscle pain or stomach flu. In a small percentage of cases, paralysis would set in or death."

“When COVID was first spreading and they were talking about preparing a vaccine, it rang a bell that they had made a vaccine for polio that wiped out the disease,” says Barbara Kitay, who was part of the national field trials at age 8 to test the safety and effectiveness of the Jonas Salk vaccine in 1954. | Photos by Danielle Silverman; Title Photo: Carol Ciminelli was one of millions of 6- to 8-year-olds across Long Island and the nation known as “Polio Pioneers” who tested the safety and efficacy of the Jonas Salk vaccine in a 1954 clinical trial. | Newsday Photo / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Keeping children safe

Decades after polio first surfaced in Vermont in the late 19th century, researchers determined that the virus was caused by contact with the stool of an infected person and spread through contaminated water or food. Many who contracted a severe form of the disease, including President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, were forced to wear heavy, full-length metal leg braces or get around in wheelchairs or use iron lungs, coffin-like primitive respirators that encased patients up to their necks. At polio’s peak in 1952, there were nearly 58,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths nationwide.

With fear rampant, polio, which spiked during the summer, shuttered swimming pools, bowling alleys, beaches and movie theaters. "Children were kept away from any place where they could congregate," said Oshinsky, who as a child lived through the peak of the epidemic and recalls his parents performing "at-home" polio tests on him to check for muscle pain or weakness. "Polio was a crack in the middle-class picture window after World War II."

Carol Ciminelli, 73, remembers growing up in East Meadow in the early 1950s during the polio epidemic. "My mother was fearful of it," said the Amityville grandmother of four whose mother sternly warned her about the dangers of playing in puddles and for at least two summers forbade her to swim in the ocean.

"There was a hurricane that drenched the area and my mother was afraid of germs in the streets. I remember her saying, ‘You are not going out in that dirty water’ and the neighborhood moms, talking about ‘How can we keep them [the children] safe, what is this and do they know what causes this [polio]?’"

Spared by the disease, Ciminelli was one of millions of 6- to 8-year-olds across Long Island and the nation known as "Polio Pioneers" who tested the safety and efficacy of the Salk vaccine in a 1954 clinical trial administered by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which later became March of Dimes. A year later, the vaccine was determined to provide protection against the disease and was heralded as a triumph of medical science.

"There was faith in the vaccine process back then," says...

"There was faith in the vaccine process back then," says Durahn Taylor, a history professor at Pace University's Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. Credit: Pace University

'Great human experiment'

"The vaccine trials were a great human experiment," said Durahn Taylor, who has a doctorate in history and teaches the subject at Pace University’s Dyson College of Arts and Sciences. "If there was vaccine hesitancy then, it was overpowered by a greater fear of polio. Parents didn’t want to feel that their kid got sick or died because they did nothing." He added, "There was faith in the vaccine process back then."

Riding through yet another epidemic, Ciminelli, who was vaccinated against the coronavirus in the spring, was optimistic that the end of COVID-19 was in sight. "When it first hit, I thought we had been through so many epidemics — polio, measles — and I thought they will probably come out with a vaccine, just like they did with polio," said the retired college library assistant.

But now, with the delta variant surging, she worries about contracting a breakthrough infection and "long-haul syndrome," which is characterized by prolonged coronavirus symptoms, ranging from a cough and shortness of breath to chronic fatigue and headache. "Prior epidemics like polio didn’t toughen me up," Ciminelli admitted. "I’m washing my hands; I’m all about the [disposable] gloves, wiping down the groceries and masking up."

Some polio survivors were considered lucky. Eighty-four-year-old Sherry Funk’s brother, Jay Kuhne, 88, who now lives in Montecito, California, was one. The Lido Beach grandmother recalls that when her brother enlisted in the military in the late 1940s, an Air Force physician who examined him noted that it was polio that stunted the growth of his leg. "My brother had a mild case of polio and no one in the family knew it," she said. "The doctor said his one leg was thinner and less developed than the other, but that it was not bad enough to keep him out of the Air Force."

Reflecting on his good fortune after his brush with polio Kuhne said, "I am grateful that there was no iron lung or death."

Both Kuhne and his sister, who grew up in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, remember how polio struck randomly and being haunted by the "disappearance" of several neighborhood children who got the disease and never returned home. "My mother explained at the time that the kids got ‘very sick and were away getting well,’" said Funk, who was vaccinated against COVID-19 and did not contract the virus.

Ed Benjamin Reilly, 84, of Oceanside recalls how he awoke with flu-like symptoms at Boy Scout camp in 1949. After going to the camp infirmary, he was treated in the polio ward at St. Charles Hospital. | Photos by Danielle Silverman

The emotional toll

Ed Benjamin Reilly, 84, of Oceanside, will never forget the summer of 1949. While at Boy Scout camp in Wading River, the former Rockville Centre resident, then 14, awoke with flu-like symptoms — fatigue, headache and leg weakness. "I had trouble walking and I felt a stiffness," recalled the grandfather of two. "I went to the camp infirmary and they took me to St. Charles Hospital, where there was a polio ward. I remember my older sister was crying as she sat on my bed. I knew I had polio, and I knew why she was crying."

After a week of intensive inpatient treatment and physical therapy at the Port Jefferson hospital, he was released. "As I walked out with my father, I saw one boy [from the camp] who went in with me who was in an iron lung and another [also from the camp] in a wheelchair," he said. "I felt so lucky … I often wonder what became of them."

But upon arriving home, the emotional toll of the virus hit him hard when he was shunned by the neighborhood children who were no longer permitted to play with him. "The kids said, ‘My mother told me I can’t get close to you,’" recalled Reilly, who has no visible scars from the disease.

To be sure, parental fears of polio spread like wildfire and reverberated through households across the nation. In Dominick Frisina’s boyhood Brooklyn home, the retired construction worker was on the receiving end of his parents’ warnings to "stay away" from the child in the neighborhood who had polio. "My parents didn’t know how contagious it was, but they told me not to be afraid of it as long as I got the shot," recalled the Island Park grandfather of four who is 84 and who received the COVID-19 vaccine in the spring. "As a kid I didn’t take polio seriously," he said. "But COVID -19 is much worse than anything I remember in my lifetime."

Kitay and others who lived through the polio epidemic — and are now facing a new deadly virus — are hopeful the COVID-19 vaccines will help life return to normal.

"I definitely learned that by surviving polio, you could get past COVID by getting the vaccine," Kitay said. "I think we should learn from the history of the past. If a vaccine can wipe out a disease like polio that maimed and killed so many, we can wipe out COVID if we follow the same procedure."

Dominick Frisina, who was a newlywed in 1956, recalls his...

Dominick Frisina, who was a newlywed in 1956, recalls his parents' warnings to "stay away" from the child in the neighborhood who had polio. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.