MILAN, Italy — When Dana Kuefner returns home to her small Milan apartment from grocery shopping, she sprays down her shoes before sanitizing every box and bag of food she purchased.
Then, she immediately washes her reusable grocery bags along with the clothing she wore outside. These are just a few of the measures Kuefner, 39, takes to protect against the new coronavirus, which is devastating her adopted country of Italy. The grocery store is the only place the former Minnesotan has visited since a full lockdown went into effect more than two weeks ago, and Kuefner said she expects she’ll remain under these orders well past April 3, the date Italian officials originally set as the sunset for the lockdown. Her message for Minnesotans: Just stay home.
“We went through these phases of denial here, too,” Kuefner said during a Skype interview Friday, March 20. “...Then you go through the phase of, ‘OK, OK, we shouldn’t go out, but I can still see my friends if we’re at home, right?’ But no, because then your friend is going to see another friend who’s going to see another friend who’s going to see a grandma, and then that person is going to end up in the ICU.
“ … We’ve never in our lifetimes experienced something like this. So it’s hard to grasp. But it’s so, so contagious.”
After growing up in Waseca, Kuefner moved to Milan 16 years ago. She now works in research administration focused on grant funding at a hospital in the northern Italian city. Deemed nonessential, Kuefner began working from home while the hospital shifted to dedicating all of its resources to treating patients suffering from COVID-19, the respiratory disease rapidly spreading across the world through a novel strain of the coronavirus. The number of infections and reported deaths continues to rise sharply in the European nation. As of Monday evening, March 23, 63,927 confirmed cases and 6,077 deaths were reported in Italy, according to Johns Hopkins University. A total of 7,432 Italians have reportedly recovered from the virus.
Alone in her apartment with her cat, Kuefner said she finds comfort in her regular routine and staying connected socially, albeit remotely. Before beginning her workday, she teaches English to Chinese students online — feeling a sense of solidarity, given her own state of lockdown. She drinks coffee and dines with friends via Skype, and spent a part of her evening Friday taking part in a yoga session with five friends spread throughout Europe.
All the while, she’s watching from afar as her hospital coworkers and other friends in health care struggle to care for the burgeoning number of gravely ill. On Monday, the Italian doctors association FNOMCEO said 24 doctors had died, according to The Washington Post, and a total of 4,824 health operators have been infected, according to Italy’s Higher Health Institute.
“The protocol is that doctors and nurses work until they’re too sick to work,” she said. “ … If they started sending all of the positive health care workers, putting them in quarantine, we wouldn’t have anyone left. That’s how bad it is.”
As Kuefner spoke Friday night, the Italian government was placing even stricter measures on its locked-down citizens — parks were closed down and outdoor activities, including walking or jogging far from home, were banned. A day earlier, Sun Shuopeng, vice president of The Red Cross Society of China, chastised Italian officials for taking too lax of an approach.
“That really made me think, like, if we here in Milan … if we’re not doing enough, what does that mean for the rest of the world?” Kuefner said. “That’s the thing that scares me, that if we’re not doing enough here in Milan, where most of us aren’t leaving our houses, that’s like a huge message to me.”
Kuefner said she tries to share that message with friends and family in the U.S., and she’s concerned about how COVID-19 will impact her home country, particularly given the patchwork of containment measures. She is surprised to see people continuing to shop for things other than necessities, and said she’s perplexed by the continued availability of takeout food from restaurants while dining rooms are closed.
“To me, it’s just like, I mean, we’re scrubbing the packages of things we picked up at the supermarket. And people in the States are still eating takeout,” Kuefner said. “... I mean, I know it sounds paranoid. It sounds crazy right now. But it just spreads so easily — why take a risk? Why take any risks?”
On March 17, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported there was no evidence of food or food packaging being associated with the spread of COVID-19. The federal agency encourages workers in dining establishments to engage in frequent, effective hygiene practices along with social distancing.
“Workers in the food and agriculture sector fill critical and essential roles within communities,” the CDC states on its website. “Promoting the ability of our workers within the food and agriculture industry to continue to work during periods of community restrictions, social distances, and closure orders, among others, is crucial to community continuity and community resilience.”
Will even more extreme measures be necessary in the U.S.? It’s difficult for experts to predict whether the United States will experience the pandemic to the same degree as Italy. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz has not issued an order for residents to shelter in place, stating he will continue to evaluate data.
Kuefner noted that while Italy’s been hit hard, Germany has so far registered less than half of the number of infections and 123 deaths compared to Italy’s 6,077. Population density, average age and other factors — including cultural differences — may be playing roles.
“We’re a lot of people basically living right on top of each other (in Milan),” Kuefner said. “Everyone’s reliant on public transportation, you know, like, there’s just a lot of contact between people. So I think that that really fueled the spread. And there’s a lot of interaction. I mean, every Italian is at their grandma's house for Sunday lunch, you know, like a lot of interaction with all age groups in this culture.”
While Kuefner said she expects the impacts from this global pandemic to be felt for a long time, particularly the strain on the economy, she was able to list some potentially positive effects: Italians may be more open to work-from-home arrangements in the future, for instance. People may be more careful about going to work while ill, even after the new coronavirus is no longer a threat. And a palpable sense of unity among people may be a welcome and lasting impact.
“Somehow, even though … we can’t actually see each other or be in the same room, people are really a lot more united than they were before,” Kuefner said. “A lot of like, the things that were dividing people — immigration was a big issue … it’s just like on the back burner. Because everyone is united in one goal right now, and that is to get over this as soon as possible so that we can try to get back to work.”
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