In the summer of 1944, 12-year-old Betsy Jones’ father, a doctor, didn’t let her leave their property because he feared she would contract polio. Now 87-years-old, she finds herself in a hauntingly familiar position. Photo courtesy of Betsy Jones

BATH — In the summer of 1944, 12-year-old Betsy Jones spent her days standing on the side of the road talking to her cousin across the street as the North Carolina sun beat down. She wasn’t allowed to step beyond the curb.

Her father, a doctor, wouldn’t let Jones leave their property that summer because he feared she might contract polio, a highly contagious disease children were especially susceptible to, which was spreading across North Carolina at the time.

Jones finds herself in a hauntingly familiar situation today under the threat of coronavirus.

Now 87, Jones, who lives at the Plant Memorial Home in Bath, still keeps in touch with her loved ones from a safe distance, but she has traded movie magazines for knitting while she stays home to keep herself safe from coronavirus, which has spread across the state in recent weeks.

“As a kid, I didn’t understand the gravity of the polio epidemic,” said Jones. “When I was 12 years old, I had never seen a picture of the iron lung, but my father was a doctor and very protective of me. He saw what could happen to me.”

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, polio, short for poliovirus, spreads from person to person through contact with the feces or droplets from a sneeze or cough of an infected person.

The CDC estimates 72% of infected people will not show symptoms and about one in four people with polio will have flu-like symptoms for two to five days. However, one out of 25 people will develop meningitis, and one out of 200 infected people suffer paralysis, which could lead to permanent disability or death. Between two and 10 out of 100 people who developed paralysis from polio died.

The first major documented polio outbreak in the United States came in 1894 in Vermont. Eighteen deaths and 132 cases of permanent paralysis were reported. In 1916, New York City saw an outbreak with more than 27,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. In the summer of 1944, it was North Carolina’s turn to wage war on the virus.

To pass the time that summer Jones sent postcards to her favorite movie stars, some of whom replied with signed posters.

“I even had a Betty Grable poster,” Jones recalled. “I got hooked on those movie magazines because they brightened my day. … I think my cousin read ‘War and Peace.’”

Jones remembers a nationwide sigh of relief when the polio vaccination was developed and made widely available in 1955. By then, she had just graduated college and she rushed to get her vaccination.

“People felt safer once the vaccine was found … it was a game changer,” she said.

In the United States, the number of polio cases reported annually declined from more than 20,000 in 1952 to fewer than 100 cases by the mid-1960s, according to the CDC. The last documented transmission of polio in the United States was in 1979.

Coronavirus, also called COVID-19, first surfaced in Wuhan, China in late December 2019 and quickly spread throughout the country. Within a month, the United States had its first reported case. Considered extremely contagious, symptoms of the virus include fever, coughing and shortness of breath according to the World Health Organization.

As of Sunday, 86 Mainers have been hospitalized and 156 have recovered during the course of the outbreak. Ten Mainers died as of the virus as of Sunday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control. The virus has infected more than 1.2 million around the world, and 66,000 have died.

State health officials continue to encourage Mainers to adhere to social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. A statewide stay-at-home order prohibiting residents from traveling outside their homes for all but “essential personal activities” took effect Thursday.

“Now that I’m older, I understand the ramifications of both polio and coronavirus, and coronavirus is scarier,” said Jones. “People may become complacent about protecting themselves, and that worries me. People don’t understand how invisible the threat is.”

“I think my father would say, ‘You have to protect yourself and your family and staying home is the best thing you can do,’” she added. “Mainers are tough people and most of us have some sense. I know we’re going to get through this.”

Comments are not available on this story.