Covid reminds us of polio epidemic in Wytheville, Va.

“People would cross the street when they saw you coming. Everybody knew about the polio epidemic and how bad it was here,” my mother would tell me, recalling how, in summer 1950, the world treated our western Virginia town of Wytheville, described by a Richmond newspaper as “the nation’s hardest hit.”

Our town, with a population of 5,000, suffered greatly from the polio epidemic, when 189 people were stricken, almost two dozen died and the only fully operating businesses were the two funeral homes. Wytheville had the highest per capita rate of polio in the country, the Virginia State Health Bulletin reported in 1951.

My 9-year-old brother, nicknamed Skipper, died of polio that summer, six weeks before I was born.

I always knew how hard my brother’s death had been on our family. My brother suffered the bulbar type of polio, the kind that can paralyze the circulatory and respiratory system, and his originated in the throat. His illness was not the more familiar “infantile paralysis” that left victims such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt on crutches and in leg braces.

Skipper was ill for only one day. He’d been admitted to a hospital in Roanoke, about 75 miles from Wytheville, after he woke up and had lost the power of speech. He’d been to a doctor that day. That night, before he went to sleep, my brother told my mother he was no longer normal.

My older sister, Melva Stephens Potts, who had polio and recovered but died of cancer in 1996, remembered squeezing oranges to get her strength back.

I remember confronting my mother repeatedly, when I was at least 8 years old, about how people treated each other during the epidemic. I would tell her that my aunts had told me not one nurse attended my birth, coming as it did during the epidemic, and the doctor came into her room only in time to “catch” me.

I always conveyed how angry that made me. “Those people were mean,” I told her.

“No, they were afraid,” she always said. “I can’t make you understand.”

Misinformation and lack of information frightened people during the polio epidemic, not unlike today.

Earlier this year, I would watch New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s daily briefings on my television as he cautioned us not to “underestimate this virus,” urging action over fear. “We’re fighting the virus and we’re fighting panic,” he would say.

Often, when my mother talked about the epidemic, she’d say that if people didn’t cross the street to avoid you, “They’d put handkerchiefs over their mouths.” And now it’s happening to me.

At 69, I am in an age group vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, which causes the disease covid-19. I wear a mask and gloves. My husband, who is in remission from acute myeloid leukemia, was tested three times for covid-19 when he spiked a fever while undergoing chemotherapy. He tested negative. He didn’t have the virus; he did have pneumonia.

He was treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center. Before he was discharged I had to go to the hospital to learn to flush his PICC line, a tube leading from inside his body to the outside so he can receive chemo easily. The hospital was closed to visitors and before I could enter my temperature was taken, and I was stopped by three security guards. I was not surprised. Now, as then, people are cautious.

Then, as now, it was a virus, and people didn’t know exactly how it spread. Swimming pools were closed during the polio epidemic because it was thought that water could be a factor.

Then children were ordered to stay in their own yards. Now it’s called social distancing.

I didn’t learn until more than 20 years ago that a local family generously offered their cabin in Hungry Mother State Park, 25 miles from Wytheville, and my family sought sanctuary there.

In its 1951 report on the epidemic, the Virginia State Health Bulletin concluded: “Investigations were made of water, milk supplies, sewage disposal, fly prevalence and personal contact with other cases. To date the study has revealed no common dominator among the cases reported.”

One difference between today’s pandemic and the 1950 polio epidemic was the open racial discrimination, which the oral history called “an ugly fact of life in the South.” Racial differences affected health care then, as now, but in different ways.

The Roanoke hospital, which treated the area’s White victims, refused to accept stricken African Americans as patients. Wytheville’s African Americans, the history reads, “Had to go to Richmond’s St. Philip Hospital over three hundred miles away, in the summer heat and humidity. Even when a local doctor tried to persuade Roanoke by phone to take one, the hospital administrators refused admission.”

Mrs. Sammie Cook, the mother of victim Betty Jean Cook-Brown, had this to say: “It took all that time to make that drive to Richmond, which, we think, may be what caused the paralysis in her jaw.”

The coronavirus will probably live long in our memories, but the polio epidemic has been mostly forgotten.

In a social history titled “In the Shadow of Polio,” published in 1996, author Kathryn Black writes, “So thoroughly have we expunged polio from our memory that today the historian David Halberstam could write an eight-hundred-page social history of the fifties without addressing the disease, not even the discovery of the vaccines.”

I remember, as an adult, learning that a writer wanted to interview my pharmacist father about the epidemic and went to his drugstore to see him. My father wouldn’t talk to him.

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Breaking New

Vaping epidemic: Family seeks answers in mother’s death

Mary Kerrie’s case sounds like the nearly 1,900 cases of vaping-related injury confirmed by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of this week, the outbreak has led to 37 vaping-related deaths in 24 states, the District of Columbia and the US Virgin Islands.

Many of those cases and deaths were among people who vaped THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana.

“The data do continue to point towards THC-containing products,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, CDC’s principal deputy director, told reporters in October. “But I’d like to stress that we don’t know what the risky material or substance is. THC may be a marker for a way that cartridges were prepared or way that the devices are producing harm.”

Mary Kerrie’s death hasn’t yet been counted in the CDC’s total. Her grieving family has many questions still without answers. But they believe that vaping THC is what ultimately led to her death.

From smoking to vaping

When Mary Kerrie transitioned to vaping nicotine a few years ago, she stopped smoking cigarettes completely, her daughter, Maggie Davis, said. Mary Kerrie was adamant with family and friends that vaping was healthier than smoking.

“She thought it was safer,” her husband, Kevin Davis, said. “I certainly liked the fact that there wasn’t the cigarette smell and her breath didn’t smell like cigarettes. I kind of thought it was better, too.”

Maggie remembers that her mom came to California this summer to help her move into her dorm for her senior year of college. While there, Mary Kerrie went to a vape shop and purchased THC cartridges for the first time.

Deaths linked to vaping often involved THC products, not nicotine, CDC says

Immediately upon returning home, she developed a nagging cough. Kevin didn’t know Mary Kerrie had been vaping THC cartridges. Only after her death did the Davis family learn that Mary Kerrie had continued buying and using THC cartridges in Georgia. Unlike in California, THC is illegal in the Davis’ home state.

‘I hope you don’t have that vaping disease’

Mary Kerrie experienced a steady decline in health between the time she started vaping THC cartridges and her death. The initial health effects she had experienced from vaping to quit smoking transitioned into frequent nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and a terrible cough. They’re all among the reported symptoms of vaping-related lung disease.
New vaping study links e-liquids to some lung inflammation

Mary Kerrie went to the hospital for assessment on September 4. A flu swab tested negative. She texted her daughter that she was diagnosed with pneumonia.

Maggie had just begun hearing reports of a national outbreak of a mystery illness related to vaping. She texted her mom, “I hope you don’t have that vaping disease.”

On the way home from the hospital, groaning between coughs, Mary Kerrie said, “I’m never smoking again. I’m throwing out all of my e-cigarettes and weed pens,” Maggie wrote in a personal essay for her college newspaper.

Kevin, an OB/GYN, encouraged Mary Kerrie when she declared she was quitting it all.

Still, Mary Kerrie’s symptoms became worse over the next two days. She stayed home from social gatherings, telling her husband that she just needed rest.

He felt she should be seen again by a doctor.

Days later, on September 6, Mary Kerrie was still sick. It was Kevin who found her, lips blue and gasping for breath, whispering, “help.”

How to convince, scare or bribe your kids not to vape

On the way to the hospital again, Mary Kerrie’s pulse was barely detectable. She’d become unresponsive.

At the hospital, doctors performed CPR unsuccessfully.

Moments later, Mary Kerrie — an outgoing 52-year-old who loved rollerskating and mountain biking, a mother and wife who was known for being vivacious and happy — was gone.

“She will never see her youngest daughter graduate high school, nor her oldest graduate college,” Maggie wrote after her death. “She will never see her daughters married or meet her grandchildren. Her absence, a sudden and jarring hole in my family, will be felt for decades to come.”

In X-rays on the day Mary Kerrie presented at the hospital, her lungs had looked clear. Two days later, they revealed a white substance resembling clouds infiltrating Mary Kerrie’s lungs.

‘From healthy to drowning in your own lungs’

To the Davis family, the X-rays seemed to confirm what they had heard in the news: Mary Kerrie’s illness wasn’t simply a case of pneumonia. In addition to nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain, the whiteout in her lungs was one of the symptoms of vaping-related lung disease.

“This wasn’t a nursing home patient. This wasn’t somebody with a chronic illness,” Kevin said. “You don’t just go from healthy to drowning in your own lungs and a flatline EKG from things in your daily life.”

Nearly two months after Mary Kerrie’s death, her case is still not part of the official CDC count of vaping-related lung injury deaths.

In part, it speaks to just how new of a phenomenon this is. The ongoing investigation “may take a few months” and could yield “multiple causes and potentially more than one root cause,” CDC’s Schuchat told reporters early in October.

For the Davis family, the wait has been frustrating. To them, it seems obvious that Mary Kerrie’s death is related to vaping.

Kevin said he recently spoke with a CDC official who said that his wife’s case met the agency’s definition of a vaping-related illness, but the agency is waiting for the county medical examiner’s decision before making an announcement.

There have already been three confirmed vaping-related deaths in Georgia. If and when it is announced, Mary Kerrie’s death could be the fourth, potentially making Georgia’s death count the highest in the United States.

Mary Kerrie’s legacy

The Davis family and Mary Kerrie’s friends want her to be remembered for the good she brought into their lives.

FDA faces mounting pressure to release final e-cigarette flavor policy

“She was all in on me and all in on our daughters, all in on her family. Anything that she wanted to be a part of, it was everything for her,” Kevin said of their 24-year marriage. “Her energy is beautiful, and I sure miss her.”

The Davis family attributes part of the blame for Mary Kerrie’s death to a lack of regulation by the US Food and Drug Administration.

“Marijuana pens also boast exponentially higher numbers of THC, and yet we still do not know how this historically disproportionate consumption of marijuana affects the human body, particularly when consumed as an oil,” Maggie wrote.

Earlier this month, the FDA warned consumers to stop using THC vaping products as investigations into vaping-related lung injuries and deaths continue. Last week, the CDC made a similar warning, saying “CDC recommends that you should not use e-cigarette, or vaping, products that contain THC.”

“Mary Kerrie vaped [nicotine] products for several years I would say, successfully, and did quit smoking,” Kevin said. “I think when she was exposed to legal THC in California and then got illicit THC in Georgia … I think that’s what killed her.”

“Other people, if they’re being exposed to something that can kill them, I hope they stop,” Kevin said. “I hope her passing helps somebody else.”

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Breaking New

Opioid crisis: 4 pharmaceutical companies accused in the opioid epidemic reach a $260 million settlement just before trial

The four companies — McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., AmerisourceBergen Corp. and Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. — reached a settlement Monday morning with the two plaintiffs, Summit and Cuyahoga counties in Ohio.

McKesson Corp., Cardinal Health Inc. and AmerisourceBergen Corp. will pay out a combined $215 million immediately, and Teva Pharmaceutical will pay $20 million, officials said at a press conference Monday.

Teva will also be donating $25 million worth of Suboxone, according a source familiar with the settlement.

The settlement was struck between midnight and 1 a.m. Monday, and the case was dismissed with prejudice, US District Court Judge Dan Polster said.

The defendants were supposed to appear in a Cleveland court Monday in the first federal multidistrict litigation (MDL) trial involving the opioid epidemic. Thousands more plaintiffs’ cases are awaiting trial.

MDL is similar to class-action lawsuits in the sense that both consolidate plaintiffs’ pretrial proceedings, for the sake of efficiency. But unlike with class-action lawsuits, each plaintiff in an MDL case can get a different verdict or award.

The plaintiffs in this MDL case — Summit and Cuyahoga counties — were the first among more than 2,700 plaintiff communities to head to trial.

Attorneys general from four states — North Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Texas — lauded Monday’s settlement as “an important step” in combating the opioid epidemic.

“People in every corner of the country have been hurt by this crisis, and it is critical that settlement funds be distributed fairly across states, cities, and counties and used wisely to combat the crisis,” the attorneys general said in a joint statement.

“The global resolution we are working to finalize will accomplish those goals while also ensuring that these companies change their business practices to prevent a public health crisis like this from ever happening again.”

Both Summit County and Cuyahoga County have announced plans for how settlement awards would be allocated.

Two other defendants were also involved in this case — a smaller pharmaceutical company, Henry Schein Medical, and the pharmacy chain Walgreens.

Walgreens was not part of the settlement. Judge Polster said claims against the company have been cut off and moved to a different track, with a schedule to follow.

Walgreens released a statement Monday saying it is “completely unlike the wholesalers involved in the national opioid litigation.”

“Before 2014, Walgreens delivered opioid medications — among many other types of medications — only to our own pharmacies, staffed by our own pharmacy professionals,’ company spokesman Phil Caruso said.

Henry Schein Medical will be making a donation of $1 million to establish an educational foundation with Summit County and will pay $250,000 of the county’s expenses, the company said in a written statement.

Henry Schein said the plaintiffs have “agreed to dismiss the Company.”

The sudden settlement Monday followed marathon negotiations that went nowhere last week.

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The talks lasted more than 10 hours and involved the CEOs of the four major companies; attorneys general from Tennessee, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas’ and lawyers representing over 2,000 state, local and Native American tribal governments.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs welcomed the settlement, but said more work needs to be done in fighting the opioid epidemic.

“The proposed settlement will make significant progress to abate the epidemic by providing resources for and applying funds directly to necessary opioid-recovery programs,” said a joint statement from Paul J. Hanly Jr., Paul T. Farrell Jr. and Joe Rice.

“Throughout this process, Summit and Cuyahoga Counties have tirelessly investigated, litigated, and prepared for the bellwether trial that would have begun today if not for this agreement. In doing so, the communities revealed facts about the roles of the opioid industry that created and fueled the opioid epidemic.

Additionally, through the discovery process, we learned that this country’s pharmacy system has played a greater role in the opioid epidemic than previously realized. Cuyahoga and Summit will continue to litigate against pharmacy defendants to further understand the industry’s failings and potential wrongdoing.”

CNN’s Evan Simko-Benarski, Brian Vitagliano, Ben Tinker, Amir Vera and Kate Trafecante contributed to this report.

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