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Health & Science

COVID-19 Vaccination Has Been Conjuring Up Emotions And Memories

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Each day, more and more people are feeling relieved as the vaccine rollout gains momentum. The newfound freedom is familiar for those who have survived other epidemics. Lesley McClurg from member station KQED reports.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: On a spring afternoon in 1954, Gloria Anderson played with other toddlers in Billings, Mont.

GLORIA ANDERSON: And two days later, my mom found out one of the kids had polio.

MCCLURG: Soon after, Anderson started feeling sick - a bit of nausea, then fever. And then her mother gasped when her 1-year-old couldn't move her leg. They rushed to the hospital, where Anderson was quarantined for three weeks.

ANDERSON: My diagnosis was never to walk again.

MCCLURG: The left side of her body was paralyzed. Similar cases were multiplying across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The three-year statistics run 50,000 polio cases, 103,000 cases, 122,000 cases. Where will it end?

MCCLURG: In the end, Anderson was one of the lucky ones. She took her first steps six months later. Yet in rare cases, a person can contract polio twice. So when the vaccine arrived, Anderson's mother raced her two daughters to the doctor's office.

ANDERSON: And it was a sugar cube. And we all took it, and my mom was radiant.

MCCLURG: Her girls were safe, but the disease scarred Anderson for life. In her 60s, she started falling a lot. Her doctors suggested a supportive brace.

ANDERSON: Which I cried getting because it was another - it's another loss thinking, oh, dear, I have to - I'm going to wear a brace now.

MCCLURG: A virus almost took her life and still affects her today. And so when the coronavirus came around, Anderson took it seriously - always masking, sheltering in place, desperately missing her grandchildren.

ANDERSON: You know, there's heartache. These are hard times, but we do it for one another.

MCCLURG: Polio in the '50s, today COVID-19 - when she received her second shot recently, she felt radiant.

ANDERSON: This is a big moment to be able to come together after - it'll be more than a year of hugging one another.

LEO HERRERA: There is a definite sense of relief and empowerment.

MCCLURG: Leo Herrera also just received his second shot. While driving to get his vaccine, he stopped for gas. There was a group of people inside the station without masks.

HERRERA: And I thought, oh, man, I cannot wait for this to be the last time that I have to sort of focus on what everybody else is doing to take care of me.

MCCLURG: It felt even better when his father was vaccinated.

HERRERA: Because my dad is a 65-year-old Mexican immigrant cashier - the first wave of death hit people like him.

MCCLURG: This year was the second time Herrera watched a virus rip through his community. COVID-19 has disproportionately hit both Latinos and LGBTQ people.

HERRERA: I'm a gay man. And I'm 39, so I have a lot of viral trauma from the HIV pandemic. And I'm also a first-generation Mexican immigrant who grew up undocumented, so there's a lot of overlap.

MCCLURG: Between his experience of the two pandemics - back in 2012, Herrera was dating a man who was HIV-positive. That same year, a new medication called PrEP hit the market. Doctors say the daily pill is somewhat like a vaccine, preventing people from contracting HIV. Herrera took a leap of faith.

HERRERA: The first time I had sex without a condom with an HIV-positive person was a freedom and a loss of shame and anxiety that was phenomenal.

MCCLURG: He is looking forward to the time when everyone is vaccinated against COVID-19 and for the first time, he's at a wedding reception or a bar and without thinking, he hugs a stranger.

HERRERA: And the hug is going to go on for a beat too long. And you're going to hold onto that stranger, and you're both going to realize what that hug means.

MCCLURG: It means for the second time, Herrera is no longer afraid.

For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.