In 1957, residents of the southwestern town Protection set an example by being the first in the U.S. to be fully inoculated against polio. Now locals are divided on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines.



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.


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...


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.