In April 1947, New York City’s health commissioner, Israel Weinstein, had been on the job 10 months. He was a child on the Lower East Side when a smallpox outbreak brought the city to its knees in the early 1900s, killing 720 New Yorkers in a two-year period.
Most New Yorkers had been inoculated against smallpox. They’d been told the inoculation would protect them for life — but there was no guarantee. In some cases, the vaccine didn’t take. In others, the immunity wore off.
On Good Friday, April 4, some startling lab results reached Dr. Weinstein: An American businessman who arrived in New York from Mexico City by bus had tested positive for smallpox. In two days, New Yorkers would be gathering for the city’s annual Easter Parade. If only one of them had smallpox, even among a vaccinated population, the resulting outbreak could be devastating.
At 2 p.m. that day, Dr. Weinstein held a news conference, urging all city dwellers to get vaccinated immediately, even if they had been inoculated as children. Re-vaccinations were necessary, he said, in case people had lost immunity.
His decision was hardly without risk. Not only could the announcement cause mass hysteria, but vaccines then were not tested the way they are today. The smallpox vaccine available at the time could trigger rare but dangerous side effects, especially in people with weakened immune systems or particular skin conditions.
According to Dr. David Oshinsky, a professor of medicine at N.Y.U. Langone Health, Dr. Weinstein acted in line with the scientific knowledge of the era and made the right move.
In a series of daily radio addresses, Dr. Weinstein focused on transparency and a consistent message. The vaccine, he said, was free, and there was, in his words, “absolutely no excuse for anyone to remain unprotected.” In a calm, clear voice, he promoted the rallying cry that would appear on posters throughout the city: “Be Sure. Be Safe. Get Vaccinated!”
But the municipal stockpile contained nowhere near enough vaccine for all of the city’s 7.8 million residents.
With the cooperation of Mayor William O’Dwyer, Dr. Weinstein secured 250,000 units from the naval medical supply depot in Brooklyn. He had 780,000 doses flown in from military bases in California and Missouri. He purchased an additional two million from private manufacturers, and then he ordered more. And he began a tracing program to locate and vaccinate anyone exposed.
The vaccine rollout was remarkably swift and uncomplicated. In early May, Dr. Weinstein announced that the danger had passed.
Later that year, he summed up the case in The American Journal of Public Health. “In a period of less than a month, 6,350,000 people were vaccinated in New York City,” he wrote. “Never before had so many people been vaccinated in such a city and on such short notice.”
The final tally was 12 infections and two deaths.
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