As Italy becomes the the new epicenter of the global pandemic caused by the outbreak of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus, two students – an Italian citizen attending Southwestern Community College and a Lenox student on an high school exchange program living abroad in Italy – are learning through experience that steps to self-isolate need to be put in place early and strictly enforced.
Silvia Alberti first came to southwest Iowa as an exchange student two years ago where she attended Nodaway Valley High School and was hosted by Derek and Amy Perkey of Greenfield. Alberti chose to return to the area last fall because of the friends she had made, the close contact she maintained with her host family and the offerings of a hands-on graphic design program at SWCC, which was not offered through Italian universities.
Alberti's plan was to stay in Iowa until the end of the school year, take a summer break in Italy, then return to SWCC in the fall. However, her plans drastically changed this week as foreigners – both in the United States and abroad – are being warned of border closings and uncertain of when they will reopen.
"It's unexpected," said Alberti. "I'm not happy about it but at the same point, America is following what north Italy is going through ... so it's better if I go home now than wait."
As of Sunday afternoon, Alberti was busy packing her bags as airlines were busy canceling flights. The ability to travel is becoming nearly impossible as information changes minute-by-minute and governments are restricting non-essential travel across their borders.
"They are keeping emergency flights for this week and then all the companies are canceling every flight until further notice," she said.
'Nervous to go home'
Alberti said she is nervous to go home to her small town near Verona in the Veneto region in northern Italy. She's been monitoring the spread of the virus through news media coverage and through calls home to her family. She described the scene as "sketchy" after Italy went under a mandatory lockdown.
"The military you see them going around ... they are transferring dead bodies because there isn't enough room," she said. "It isn't fun to see."
Alberti said her dad remarked how eerie life in the town has become since all activities have been canceled.
"There's always something going on, but he said it's so weird because there is no noise anymore other than the ambulance and you hear an ambulance every 20 minutes," Alberti said.
An hour and a half away from Alberti's home in Verona, coffins are starting to line up "head-to-toe" in Lombardy and some nearby cemeteries have reached capacity. The virus is so widespread and so contagious, even the ability to host a traditional funeral is currently considered illegal in Italy.
Italy has surpassed China as the country with the highest death toll. As of Sunday, Italy had more than 54,000 recorded infections and 5,476 deaths. Italian officials reported the largest single-day increase of 793 deaths on Saturday.
An additional 651 patients in Italy died Sunday from the virus which contributed to the 5,476 reported virus-related deaths.
At the time of the report, there were 46,638 current infections and 12,500 "closed cases," in which 7,026 (56%) recovered and 44% had died. More than half of the cases and fatalities in Italy occurred in the past week.
On Saturday night, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called the pandemic the country’s most difficult crisis since the Second World War. In his announcement, he closed factories and all production that is not essential – an "economic sacrifice" intended to reduce the spread of infection. However, the virus is showing no signs of slowing down in Italy and officials are warning its neighboring countries and the U.S. that it's coming with equal velocity.
"I feel like since following all statistics and stuff that America is following the same path that Italy did, and Italy followed China and Russia," said Alberti.
In Alberti's opinion, the U.S. has an advantage. She said with the virus still in its early stages of the spread, she hopes the American public will see what's happening in her home country and use that information to take proper precautions: self-quarantine and practice social distancing.
"You know it's going to be bad, so instead of ending up like Italy where the army is in everyone's driveway ... making sure they don't leave their house unless they need the groceries or to go to the doctor," she said. "That is not a good living situation. Since you guys know what's going to happen, just start doing it (a quarantine) now, so it won't get worse during this period of time."
An Iowan in Italy
From her home in Trento – a city in northern Italy – Skye Bartlett, a Lenox High School junior, is under a government mandated lockdown with her host parents and urges Americans to take the advisories seriously.
"It was one of the least infected areas in the north at first, and then as it progressed, it got here – It's like 1,480 cases total and 35 deaths, I think and 179 new cases today," she said about the rate of infection in her region.
Like life in Verona, a trucks patrol the streets of Trento which explicit instructions to stay indoors due to the virus are announced over a speaker.
"My family is always saying how strange it is to be in the house ... I know for a lot of families it's making them go stir crazy because this is nothing like anybody has ever experienced before, but here, the quarantine is working," Barlett said.
In Italy, individuals who do not follow the health advisories are contributing to the spread of COVID-19, so many support a government-mandated lockdown.
"Of course there are people who don't want to do it and the cases rise in a day. It's not something you can just say 'stay at home' and people will do it," said Bartlett.
Bartlett said her host mother works from home and her host father is an architect, who has continued to report to work, but she said that is to become "impossible" soon.
"It's getting more and more dangerous," she said.
As she monitors how the virus is spreading, she is concerned about what she sees on her social media feeds.
"I've heard a lot of stories out of the U.S. where people panic. They go to the store, they buy out all the toilet paper and buy as many things as they can. Here, we don't see that as much. I think they are very respectful and think a lot about other people."
Bartlett said she thinks Americans are taking advisories as a joke and "taking the wrong things seriously."
"I think they are waiting until they are told, 'You have to stay at home.' They are trying to prepare their pantries when they should be practicing social distancing and taking into consideration the elderly and everybody else," she said.
Bartlett is scheduled to return to Iowa in June, which is a concern to her since the virus is just starting to gain a foothold in the U.S."It hit China in January ... and now they aren't having new cases. It's taken four months. ... It hit Italy really hard a month ago and it's not anywhere near stopping and it's just now hitting the U.S, so we're very frightened that in June, when I'm scheduled to come home, that I might not find a flight," she said.
Symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, cough and shortness of breath. These symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure, based on the incubation period of MERS-CoV viruses.
If you have suspected respiratory symptoms, call Greater Regional Health at 641-782-1194 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. After hours, call 641-782-7091.
Starting today, March 23, all patients visiting Greater Regional Health must use the main entrance. There, visitors will be screened by healthcare professionals who will be taking temperatures and asking the purpose of your visit.
For general questions regarding COVID-19, call the United Way of Central Iowa hotline at 515-246-6555 or toll-free at 1-800-244-7431.
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U.S. COVID-19 stats
Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the U.S. was reported Jan. 20, more than 33,546 confirmed cases have been reported. Of those, 32,949 cases are active and 597 cases are considered "closed" as of Sunday evening.
Of the 32,949 active cases, 2% (or 795 cases) were considered to be "serious or critical," with the others considered to be in "mild condition."
The outcome for the 597 closed U.S. cases show that 30% (178 patients) recovered or have been discharged and 70% (419 patients) have died.
As of Sunday, Iowa has 90 confirmed cases. Information on the number of recovered, discharged or related deaths was not available at time of publication.