Retired York County doctor sees parallels between coronavirus, polio outbreaks

Ron Musselman
York Dispatch

Ben Hoover grew up in York County during the polio epidemic in the mid-1940s and 1950s.

Hoover said the polio epidemic and current coronavirus pandemic enveloping the United States have striking similarities in terms of fear and uncertainty.

“People were scared then, and people are scared now,” said Hoover, 82, a retired doctor who lives in Spring Garden Township. “No one is really sure what to do, except stay at home and self-isolate.”

Schools and playgrounds were shut down during outbreaks of the polio virus, along with swimming pools and movie theaters, much as they are now.

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More than 457,000 cases of polio were reported in the United States between 1937 and 1997, according to www.post-polio.org. During the early 1950s, the disease paralyzed more than 15,000 people, mostly children, each year, according to NPR.

At least nine people died in York County in 1941 and more than 100 were quarantined after contracting the virus, which peaked in September of that year in what was the most-reported polio season locally, according to newspaper accounts.

But the virus hung around for many years after that.

Children recovering from polio at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia practice walking with crutches in 1946.

In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was approved, and it was regarded as one of the biggest medical advances in U.S. medical history.

Within two years, polio cases dropped approximately 85% to 90%, the March of Dimes reported.

Hoover believes a similar vaccine will be developed for coronavirus, which has infected more than 788,000 people nationwide as of Tuesday, leaving more than 42,000 dead since the outbreak began.

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York County has 531 confirmed cases and 14 virus-related deaths as of Tuesday. There have been 35,684 total cases, confirmed and probable, in Pennsylvania, as well as 1,622 deaths.

“They will find a vaccine (for coronavirus),” Hoover said. “It will probably be the fastest vaccine that has ever been developed and distributed, but it will take a year or more before it is tested and being used.

“We’re learning more about the virus every day. It makes people very sick. This is somewhat worse than the normal flu because it grabs a hold of people so quickly. It’s so contagious, probably 10 times more contagious than the regular flu.”

Hoover’s father, Philip, was a doctor in Dallastown, and his son said he treated numerous children and patients sickened by the polio virus.

Ben Hoover

“I remember the mid-'40s and on and the polio epidemic very well,” Hoover said. “In those days, if a child had a fever during the summer, you were afraid they had polio and you would take them to the doctor’s office.

“People would bring their kids to the office to see my dad in the middle of the night. My brother and I would hear the doorbell ring, our bedroom was right above the waiting room. We would hear the conversation, then he would talk to them and treat them.”

Rebecca Roberts, 81, of Dover Township, grew up near Farquhar Park in York City during the polio epidemic. She remembered the Boys Club Pool being closed, as well as some neighbors who contracted the virus in the late 1940s and early 1950s. 

“The swimming pool at the Boys Club was closed for several summers, and so were the movie theaters,” Roberts said. “They weren’t sure how polio was spread and they didn’t want people congregating. It’s very similar to what’s going on now.

“I know of at least two of my neighbors that had polio and were hospitalized, and they both recovered,” she said. “And I remember hearing about the isolation facilities at the hospital.” 

Hoover is named after his grandfather, who was a noted physician in Wrightsville. He helped edit the book "That Sovereign Knowledge,” which was published in 1990 and detailed the first 100 years of York Hospital and its medical staff.

“The last epidemic to really compare to COVID-19 is the flu of 1918,” Hoover said. “I can remember my father and my grandfather talk(ing) about its impact in Wrightsville. 

“Entire families died from it. I never heard them discuss that anyone in their family got it. Maybe that was because they were always big on washing your hands.”

— Ron Musselman can be reached at rmusselman@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @ronmusselman8.

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