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

The George Zimmerman lawsuit reminds us of how significant the Trayvon Martin case was for a divided country

The 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man who killed him, hit close to home for many black families and forced nationwide conversations about race in America.

Seven years ago, the 17-year-old Trayvon was holding a can of Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles as he walked from a convenience store to the home of his father’s fiancée in Sanford, Florida.

He was wearing a hoodie.

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, spotted him and called 911 to report “a suspicious person” in his gated community. In another 911 call, a neighbor had been speaking with a dispatcher when a voice screamed, “Help, help!” in the background, followed by the sound of a gunshot.

Zimmerman said he shot Trayvon in self-defense after the unarmed teen hit him, knocking him to the ground. Critics said Zimmerman was unjustified in confronting Trayvon, particularly since Zimmerman disregarded a police dispatcher’s advice to stop following the teen.

Zimmerman’s supporters said he was exercising his Second Amendment right to bear arms and Florida’s “stand your ground law” could have given him immunity.

After Zimmerman was acquitted of a second-degree murder charge, thousands of people took their anger over the verdict to the streets. They wore black hoodies and chanted Trayvon’s name. In fact, the image of Martin wearing a hoodie became iconic. Professional athletes wore hoodies, and protesters repeated the mantra: “I am Trayvon Martin” to express solidarity.
Even then-President Barack Obama weighed in after the verdict in a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room, saying, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
The acquittal inspired the hashtag “#BlackLivesMatter,” which evolved into a rallying cry and a national movement in 2014 when a police officer fatally shot Michael Brown.
Trayvon’s name still comes up whenever an unarmed black person is killed. He is often remembered along with Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile and many others.

A mourning mother turned into an activist

Shortly after his death, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said she realized she had no other choice than to speak up and take action against gun violence.

Fulton created The Trayvon Martin Foundation with Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, “out of a need to bring awareness to ending senseless gun violence,” according to the nonprofit’s website. They testified in opposition to “stand your ground” laws and co-authored “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin.”

Fulton has shared the pain of losing a child with a growing group of mothers whose sons’ deaths have become symbols of racial injustice and police brutality.
Earlier this year, she announced that she’s running for a seat on the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners.

“At first, I didn’t want to be the voice for Trayvon after he died but I decided I have no choice. Now, I’m called to act, and called to serve,” Fulton said in a roughly two-minute video posted on her Instagram account. “It became clear to me there’s an opportunity to turn our family’s tragedy into something positive for many other families.”

The shooter’s post-trial controversies

The lawsuit against Trayvon’s parents and others is just the latest controversy for Zimmerman.

A few weeks after his acquittal in 2013, Zimmerman was pulled over for speeding in northern Texas and sent on his way with a warning.

Then that November, police arrested him at his then-girlfriend’s home in Apopka, Florida. He was held on suspicion of aggravated assault and misdemeanor counts of domestic violence battery and criminal mischief, but the woman later asked that the charges be dropped. Zimmerman was never prosecuted.

George Zimmerman accused of criminal stalking in Florida
In January 2015, another girlfriend accused Zimmerman of throwing a wine bottle at her, leading to his arrest. The woman later backed off her claims, and charges were never filed, police said.
Months later, he was shot in a road rage incident in Lake Mary, Florida, and suffered minor injuries. The suspect was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a trial.
Zimmerman sparked outrage in 2016 when he attempted to auction off the gun that he purportedly used to kill Trayvon, which he described as a “piece of American history.”
A year later, Zimmerman was accused of stalking a private investigator who had been hired by a production company that was working on a documentary about Trayvon’s life. Deputies said Zimmerman called the private investigator 55 times, left 36 voicemails, texted him 67 times and sent 27 emails over a nine-day span, according to CNN affiliate WKMG.

Zimmerman’s lawyer, Larry Klayman, filed a lawsuit Wednesday alleging that there was a conspiracy by the family, their lawyer Ben Crump, and others to frame him.

Crump and Trayvon’s parents have denied the allegations.

“I have every confidence that this unfounded and reckless lawsuit will be revealed for what it is — another failed attempt to defend the indefensible and a shameless attempt to profit off the lives and grief of others,” Crump said in a statement issued on his and Trayvon’s parents’ behalf.

CNN’s Darran Simon contributed to this report.

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Celebrity Entertaiment

Brett Reminds Casey She’s Single

If Foster sees it, it’s there! Brett (Kara Killmer) has been single ever since she broke off her engagement and moved back to Chicago — and she is making sure Casey (Jesse Spencer) knows it.

During the Wednesday, November 4, episode of Chicago Fire, Brett reveals to Foster (Annie Ilonzeh) that the juvenile case from episode 3 had a happy ending.

“I just got a message from Ryan, the social worker who helped us with the county and detention facility. He says that Isaac is being released early,” Brett tells her partner in Us Weekly’s exclusive sneak peek. “Ryan’s been visiting a lot. Apparently he was a model inmate. I was gonna visit next week but he’s already gone be home.”

Casey, who happens to be in the locker room during the discussion, can’t help but chime in. “Ryan’s the guy you were dating right? He seems really invested, which makes a difference in those situations,” he tells Brett, who immediately feels the need to correct Casey.

Chicago Fire Sneak Peek Brett Gets Defensive When Casey Thinks She Has a Boyfriend
Chicago Fire’ sneak peek: Jesse Spencer as Matthew Casey and Kara Killmer as Sylvie Brett. NBC

“No, I wasn’t dating Ryan. We had a drink once at Molly’s, to talk about Isaac,” she says, which Casey shrugs off. “Either way, it’s nice to know there’s someone the system advocating for kids like that,” he responds and walks away.

She then realizes how strange her reaction was. “Why was I so defensive about Ryan? That’s super weird,” she says to Foster who smiles and adds, “Don’t ask me, partner.”

While nothing has officially happened between Casey and Brett — she was his ex-wife’s best friend after all — the pair have exchanged flirty glances over the past two seasons. However, things may get more complicated when the winter finale airs (on Wednesday, November 20) and Dawson (Monica Raymund) returns.

“They were really great friends and she left and [Brett] had a little bit of abandoned feelings, but I think it’s that whole pick it up as friends do,” cocreator Derek Haas recently told Us Weekly exclusively. “Brett’s nature isn’t one to hold grudges. She’s got a sweet spirit about her and I think she’ll have the same feelings toward Dawson.”

Watch the exclusive sneak peek above.

Chicago Fire airs on NBC Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET.

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