In Tiny Kansas Town, Pandemic Skeptics Abound Amid False Information And Politics

Jan 25, 2021
Originally published on January 27, 2021 10:35 am

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.

Rancher Steve Herd, 72, from Protection, Kan., was in the third grade when he participated in the 1957 event that made the town the first in the nation to be fully inoculated against polio.
Jim McLean / Kansas News Service

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.

The Herd family of Protection, Kan., on the day they joined other residents of the community in getting inoculated against polio. Steve Herd is third from the front. His younger brother, Stan, is directly in front of him.
Courtesy March of Dimes

"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."

In Protection, Kan., the town's role in kicking off the polio vaccination campaign in 1957 remains a point of pride memorialized by this small monument in front of the old post office.
Jim McClean / Kansas News Service

Not today

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."


Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks or email jim@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

One town on the high plains of Kansas serves as a microcosm for the shift away from faith in government since the 1950s when facing a pandemic. Jim McLean, of the Kansas News Service, reports.

JIM MCLEAN, BYLINE: The year was 1957. Kansas native son Dwight Eisenhower was president. Small towns in farm country were thriving. And the nation was turning the corner in its long battle with polio. The vaccine had been tested, but the March of Dimes - then known as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis - needed someplace to kick off its vaccination campaign. It chose an aptly named town in rural Kansas.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Citizens of Protection, Kan., are really getting protection. The tots are the first to face the Salk vaccine needle.

MCLEAN: Rancher Steve Herd is 72. He was in the third grade the day he, his parents and four siblings - including his brother Stan, now a world-famous landscape artist - gathered with their neighbors in the high school gym to get their shots.

STEVE HERD: There's a picture of us standing in line with our sleeves rolled up.

MCLEAN: Reminiscing on the phone the other day, Steve remembered the event better than Stan, who was only 6 at the time.

STEVE HERD: Mom had made us special shirts, you know, so we would look good for the occasion, the way I remember it.

STAN HERD: I remember the shirts. Yeah.

STEVE HERD: Yup, you bet. OK.

STAN HERD: I've still got mine.

STEVE HERD: Although we were really excited about it, we were also pretty apprehensive because none of us ever liked shots.

STAN HERD: Well, I didn't know what a shot was, but I could tell by the look on your face that it wasn't going to be fun (laughter).

STEVE HERD: (Laughter) OK. You bet.

MCLEAN: The mass vaccination made Protection the very first town to be fully protected against polio, a highly contagious disease that killed and crippled millions in the first half of the 20th century. Steve Herd says it's still the town's claim to fame.

STEVE HERD: We were an example of a little teeny town of 700 people - of everybody get together, no dissenters, to try to do some good and to try to show the world how this could be done.

MCLEAN: Things are different today. Protection's population has dwindled to below 400. The people who remain are, on average, older and less prosperous. And many are angry at politicians in Topeka and Washington. That anger has opened political fault lines, hindering efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. Comanche County commissioners opted out of Democratic Governor Laura Kelly's statewide mask order. And County Health Director Jerry McKnight says she's having trouble convincing some that the vaccine is safe, in part because of conspiracy theories, including one claiming the vaccine contains a microchip developed by the federal government to track people.

JERRY MCKNIGHT: Yeah, I hear that. I hate to say that it got pulled in with politics, with the election and everything and...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: But it did.

MCKNIGHT: It did. It absolutely did.

MCLEAN: People in rural areas, according to a recent study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, are less likely to get the vaccine, in part because of their political beliefs. COVID survivor Bert Carlson lives in Fredonia, another small Kansas town that, like Protection, voted overwhelmingly for former President Donald Trump. He's bought into the microchip conspiracy theory and says he's not alone.

BERT CARLSON: I think they're trying to scare the whole world into getting these shots. I hope I'm as wrong as the world can be, but I've had 100 other friends that has the same concern.

MCLEAN: Steve Herd says neighbors who argued good-naturedly about politics at the local coffee shop in the 1950s now savage one another on social media. He says the divisions run so deep that he can't imagine the event that decades ago made Protection an example for the nation happening today.

STEVE HERD: It would be impossible because we would take sides. We would simply take sides. And some people would say, this is a wonderful deal. And other people would say, no, this is a big scam. It's fake news. And so, no, I don't think it's possible whatsoever. I hope I'm wrong, but I'm afraid that I'm not.

MCLEAN: No longer possible in a county that was recently near the top of a nationwide list for the most COVID-19 deaths per capita. For NPR News, I'm Jim McLean.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMPRESARIOS' "SIESTA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.