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COVID-19 vaccine push triggers local doctor’s memories of polio fight

The subject was vaccine hesitancy — why does it seem to take so long for people to accept an intervention that scientists insist can help vanquish a pestilence? — and Dr. Norman Panting had a strong opinion.

“Ignorance,” Panting suggested.

It was as if the word had echoed into the age of COVID-19 from the distant static of April 1960, when Dr. Cedric C. Johnson, president of the Sonoma County Medical Society, had announced: “Any future deaths or disabilities due to polio will probably be the result of apathy and ignorance concerning immunization.”

Different virus. Different era. Different age group at greatest risk. Different America.

Still, the health professionals tasked with stopping polio in this county faced the same underlying challenge as those now trying to contain the SARS-Cov-2 coronavirus — overcoming public uncertainty.

The man tapped by the medical society to accomplish that mission six decades ago was Norman Panting, now 93.

It was Panting who opened the first free clinics in Sonoma County to deliver Dr. Jonas Salk’s innovative polio shots.

In retrospect, Panting seems a strange choice to have become the county’s vaccine maestro. He was a 31-year-old doctor of internal medicine, a native of Honduras who had lived in Santa Rosa for only a couple years by April 29, 1959, when he was named chairman of a special committee to combat the low rate of polio vaccination here.

Residents lined up outside Summit Savings & Loan Association downtown Santa Rosa for hours on Sept. 20, 1962 to receive the polio vaccine. Within two hours that night 1,450 people received the Type 1 Sabin oral polio vaccine on sugar cubes, according a Press Democrat report in the next day’s paper. (Don Meacham/Courtesy Sonoma County Library)
Residents lined up outside Summit Savings & Loan Association downtown Santa Rosa for hours on Sept. 20, 1962 to receive the polio vaccine. Within two hours that night 1,450 people received the Type 1 Sabin oral polio vaccine on sugar cubes, according a Press Democrat report in the next day’s paper. (Don Meacham/Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

The United States government had licensed use of the Salk vaccine four years earlier, and its effect on transmission rates was arresting. New cases went from nearly 58,000 in 1952 (with more than 3,000 deaths) to about half that in 1955.

But acceptance had stalled in Sonoma County. After vaccinating 51,000 people in 1957, the county health department serviced 18,000 in 1958 and 11,000 in 1959, according to Press Democrat articles of the era.

Not surprisingly, the poliovirus — which attacks the nervous system, mostly in pre-adults, and can cause paralysis in severe cases — was making a comeback.

Sonoma County recorded seven cases of polio between April 1, 1959, and March 31, 1960, the highest number logged between those calendar dates since 1956-57. That data mirrored the national trend, which saw cases climb from 5,485 in 1957 to 5,787 in 1958 and to 8,425 in 1959.

The ascent was unacceptable to Panting, who proposed forming a committee and attacking the virus more systematically.

A crowd lines up for polio vaccines at the Family Health Clinic in Windsor in 1958. (The Press Democrat)
A crowd lines up for polio vaccines at the Family Health Clinic in Windsor in 1958. (The Press Democrat)

His urgency grew from his time teaching medical residents at the county hospital on Chanate Road, a property that would become Sutter Hospital, and later the county’s public health lab.

Panting couldn’t shake the image of the polio ward there – an entire floor lined with iron lungs, massive diving-bell-shaped capsules that held small, immobile human bodies.

“That depressed the hell out of me,” Panting said. “Seeing the young kids, mechanically being supported. Eventually dying of pneumonia.”

He proposed an energetic information campaign and a series of vaccination clinics that could immunize a stream of kids in a short time.

Just a few years earlier, Panting had been a volunteer Air Force flight surgeon in the Marshall Islands, where he watched eight hydrogen bombs explode — one of them from an airplane, which shook in the percussive waves that followed the night-to-daytime flash and the great mushroom cloud.

Now, he was entrusted with making the county’s children safer.

Robert Marmorstein, coordinator of polio vaccine efforts in Penngrove in 1962. The Knock Out Polio campaign that year aimed to vaccinated 200,000 people in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties in September 1962. (The Press Democrat)
Robert Marmorstein, coordinator of polio vaccine efforts in Penngrove in 1962. The Knock Out Polio campaign that year aimed to vaccinated 200,000 people in Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties in September 1962. (The Press Democrat)

Panting and the other eight doctors on the committee designated May 11-16, 1959, as Polio Week in Sonoma County.

They started the charge with some publicity shots on Sunday, May 10, and scheduled an open clinic for that Friday at public health. There would be regular clinics on Chanate after that, on the second Friday each month.

Panting acknowledges he wasn’t very hands-on with the syringes, or with physically arranging the clinics or tracking the data afterward. His role was to encourage doctors to volunteer their time administering shots, and to be the public face of the county’s vaccination drive, as Dr. Urmila Shende has been in 2020-21.

Momentum began slowly, but Panting’s team kept at it, organizing more vaccination clinics in 1960, 1961 and 1962, at sites all over the county. Now we’d call them mobile pop-ups.

During the Kennedy administration, the county called them “dollar clinics,” a reference to the suggested donation for each shot of vaccine (a substantial fee that translates to about $9 today).

Maxwell Cunningham, Sonoma Valley Polio chairman, in 1962 with a post-polio patient in a wheelchair referred to in archives by her married name, Mrs. John Jefferson. From the Nation Polio Foundation, Jefferson received a pneumo-belt and Thompson motor, a small device worn under clothing that helps convalescing polio patients breath “without the use of old style respirator,” according to a Jan. 24. 1962 Press Democrat article. (Dorothy Pingree/The Press Democrat)
Maxwell Cunningham, Sonoma Valley Polio chairman, in 1962 with a post-polio patient in a wheelchair referred to in archives by her married name, Mrs. John Jefferson. From the Nation Polio Foundation, Jefferson received a pneumo-belt and Thompson motor, a small device worn under clothing that helps convalescing polio patients breath “without the use of old style respirator,” according to a Jan. 24. 1962 Press Democrat article. (Dorothy Pingree/The Press Democrat)

On April 27, 1960, Sonoma County doled out vaccinations to about 10,000 residents at nine separate locations, according to the Press Democrat. It was remarkable coverage in a county that had a population of fewer than 65,000 at the time.

A full course of the Salk vaccine was four shots, over a period of months, compared to the two-shot regimen of Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna, or the one-and-done approach of Johnson & Johnson.

The U.S. licensed an oral polio vaccine, developed by Dr. Albert Sabin, in 1962. On Sept. 23 of that year, Sonoma County’s public health department set up 47 clinics to blanket the region with the Sabin vaccine for “KO Polio Sunday.”

“The program was a success,” Panting said matter-of-factly. “It eliminated polio in Sonoma County.”

The last recorded polio case in the United States was in 1979.

Sonoma County’s polio campaign had an epic feel, but it was only a small slice of Norman Panting’s career. He’s had subsequent stints as chairman of Northern California Regional Medical Programs, president of the Redwood Empire Heart Association, secretary-treasurer of the Sonoma County Medical Society and senior medical examiner for the Federal Aviation Agency. He was the founding director of Santa Rosa Memorial’s coronary care unit in 1967.

Norman and his second wife, Karen, met in 1978, at an educational talk by an esteemed Russian doctor who turned out to be a Jewish comic perpetrating a gag.

Volunteers with the KO Polio (Knock Off Polio) campaign hang posters in Santa Rosa in 1963. From left, Don Coover, Thomas Suur, merchant Austin Sullivan and Dennis Asti. (The Press Democrat)
Volunteers with the KO Polio (Knock Off Polio) campaign hang posters in Santa Rosa in 1963. From left, Don Coover, Thomas Suur, merchant Austin Sullivan and Dennis Asti. (The Press Democrat)

Norman approached Karen at the wine reception beforehand and kissed her hand in greeting.

“My version is up struts this peacock,” Karen Panting, 80, recalled recently with a burst of laughter. “Norman would wear white suits, and he was always dapper looking. And always a sparkle in his eye.”

The couple married in 1983, blending the four children from Norman’s first marriage, and the three from Karen’s first.

That first meeting was at the Quail Inn in Oakmont, and the Pantings returned to the retirement community in 2017.

Their house, brightened by sunshine and art, is just off the fifth hole of Oakmont’s short course.

Norman hasn’t had a full-time office practice since 1989, when he suffered a massive heart attack. But he stays very busy, largely as a qualified medical evaluator in courtroom trials. He works out for an hour, six days a week, Karen said.

And Norman has paid close attention to Sonoma County’s coronavirus vaccination effort.

The Metcalf family received their polio vaccines in September 1962 from Dr. Close. The baby took hers from a dropper, and the toddler was able to swallow hers. (Joe Price Jr./The Press Democrat)
The Metcalf family received their polio vaccines in September 1962 from Dr. Close. The baby took hers from a dropper, and the toddler was able to swallow hers. (Joe Price Jr./The Press Democrat)

Similarities to the polio immunizations are obvious — a county-managed campaign that enlisted private providers, a geographic dispersal of clinics, initial public hesitancy that erodes over time, the local paper trumpeting the achievement of vaccination milestones.

There are some differences, though.

Americans were generally much more trusting of doctors, scientists and public officials in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And while there has always been cultural division in this county, Panting has been shocked to see people using political beliefs to guide their decisions on getting vaccinated.

“It is not a political issue,” he said. “The vaccine is good for Republicans, Democrats and Independents.”

Panting noted another difference between the two outbreaks.

As much as polio terrified families in the 1950s, the SARS-Cov-2 virus has proved to be far more devastating, in a greater variety of ways. That’s why Panting got the COVID vaccine as soon as it was available.

History came full circle when he went to the health lab on Chanate for his first dose, but he and Karen were turned away because they had given one another booster flu shots too recently.

They wound up getting their coronavirus vaccinations a week or two later at the county fairgrounds.

Norman Panting’s begrudging respect for this deadly, mutative virus is why he remains a staunch advocate of vaccination at the age of 93.

“There’s more need now than even back then,” Panting said. “Polio left you paralyzed. This kills you.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to accurately reflect the history of the Chanate Road property that once housed Sonoma County Community Hospital.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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