Let Inga Tell You: Taking the COVID vaccine is an investment in a normal life

Jonas Salk appears on a March 1954 cover of Time magazine a year before the efficacy of his polio vaccine was announced.
Jonas Salk appears on the March 29, 1954, cover of Time magazine a year before the efficacy of his polio vaccine was announced following clinical trials.

One of my goals for 2021 is to not repeat history.

In 1955, my siblings and I contracted polio four months after the triumphant April 12 announcement of the trial success of Jonas Salk’s vaccine.

In that era, polio, a warm-weather virus especially targeting children, was the second-greatest fear in America after nuclear war.

In those hot, humid August days in 1955, I remember being as sick as I’ve ever been. Fortunately, neither I nor my siblings were paralyzed, but polio has had lifelong impacts on my health. Probably we kids recovered better than our poor, terrified parents. The little boy in the bed next to my sister’s ended up in an iron lung. (Google this.)

The simple fact was — and is — that it really takes awhile for an entire country to be vaccinated — never mind, in COVID’s case, twice.

Believe me, there weren’t many anti-vaxxers in the early 1950s. In fact, I wish I could load up every one of the current ones and take them on time travel back to the polio wards of that era.

Like most kids of my generation, you were destined to get the un-vaccinatable childhood diseases like mumps, chickenpox, measles and rubella (also called German measles). There was plenty of misery in all of them, and they were not without permanent effects — deafness from mumps, for example. Our next-door neighbor contracted rubella while pregnant and gave birth to a severely disabled child.

The vaccination eligibility categories seem to be shifting pretty much daily, but my husband and I plan to get the vaccine when available to us. I do confess that we, like a lot of people, have some concerns about such a large population getting a vaccine that hasn’t been tested by time. But we consider it an investment in resuming normal life.

Personally, I think that people in the 20-40 age group, especially those with kids, ought to get the vaccine before us oldies who are living at home and don’t have a serious underlying condition. (In my view, being over 70 is by definition an underlying condition.) Getting kids back in school and the economy back on track would be really high on our priority list.

One can definitely find vaccine horror stories — or at least cautionary tales — if one looks. The 1955 Cutter incident (some “incident”!) with the polio vaccine, for example (thousands of children received defective vaccine containing live polio virus). The folks who got Guillain-Barré syndrome after getting the 1976 swine flu vaccine. The good news from both is that the learning curve on vaccines and oversight in manufacturing have improved exponentially.

I signed up for the COVID contact tracing app on my phone, which is utterly amazing. The amazing part I’m referring to is that I was actually able to do it. It first required upgrading to the next operating system on my phone, which I am normally morally opposed to. These upgrades, in my experience, are scientifically designed to make everything that worked before never work again.

Frankly, the odds of this app ever pinging and alerting me that I have been exposed to COVID-19 are astoundingly small. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the only person I am ever within six feet of for more than 15 minutes is Olof. In fact, my exposure to such groupings is so rare that I’d be able to identify who exposed me long before the app did. But I still consider it a useful data point.

Olof, however, is horrified that I have done this. He maintains that if that app were on his phone, the phone would never leave the house again. But keep in mind that Olof disables GPS tracking on his phone settings until the microsecond before he is calling an Uber, then re-disables it as soon as he gets home.

Frankly, doing that is pretty low on my techno-disabled brain’s list of things to master. Besides, I’m fairly clear that “they” know where I am and what I’m doing pretty much all the time anyway. This is proved by my searching for even a nanosecond for something on the internet and then being bombarded with ads for it for weeks after. I confess that I sometimes like to toy with the algorithm by searching for really weird, kinky stuff. My phone also knows the precise location of every photo I’ve ever taken.

When the polio vaccination program finally got to my little town, the team showed up to schools, lined the kids up assembly-line style in the cafeteria and inoculated us. No one was turning it down.

Unlike the polio vaccine, which gave you permanent immunity, it’s hard to know how long the effects of the COVID vaccine will last. Will we need it yearly like regular flu? That’s one part of the experiment that is going to become evident pretty fast.

Regardless, this time around, I just want to get the vaccine before the disease gets me.

Inga’s looks at life appear regularly in the La Jolla Light. Reach her at ◆