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.
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.
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.
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.