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Italian doctors urge the U.S. to learn from their country’s mistakes

With close to 7,000 deaths, Italy is the country hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic so far. Its health care system, one of Europe’s best, is mustering all its resources to respond to the flood of patients infected with COVID-19. But doctors and nurses are near their breaking points, and they warn the U.S. to learn from the Italian government’s mistakes. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    With close to 7,000 deaths, Italy is the nation hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

    And as Nick Schifrin reports, Italy's doctors are urging the United States to learn from their national tragedy.

  • And a warning:

    These scenes are difficult to watch.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Northern Italy, the patients are gasping for air. At hospitals across the region, the horror is relentless.

    And the doctors and nurses who don't have enough protective equipment, don't have enough beds or machines, don't have enough hours in the day to save the sick, say they're losing a war.

  • Romano Paolucci (through translator):

    We are at the end of our strength. This is a small hospital, and we are taking in a lot of people. I would say the capacity is finished.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Romano Paolucci was called out of retirement to help treat COVID-19 patients at Cremona's Oglio Po Hospital. Doctors are pulling 12-hour shifts. and they're starting to get sick. Six had to leave work after contracting COVID-19.

  • Luca Dall’asta (through translator):

    Psychologically, it's very difficult.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Nurse Luca Dall'asta struggles to find the words.

  • Luca Dall’asta (through translator):

    It will be at the end of this emergency that we will see how we stand up. But at the moment, we have the right spirit, even if we are very tired.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Doctors call the treatment for COVID-19 intense and lengthy. Patients need weeks to heal, if they heal. There are only so many ventilators, and they're prioritized for those most likely to survive.

    And so doctors are forced to decide who lives and who dies. And when patients die, they die alone. Funerals are illegal. Coffins sit for days. In this chapel in a crematorium, there are three times the normal number of dead.

  • Michele Marinello (through translator):

    In theory, we are used to this, because our job deals with coffins. But now we understand the exceptional nature of the crisis.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Bergamo, the cemetery is full, so army trucks brought coffins to a cemetery in a different region far from victims' families.

    This is one of Europe's best health care systems. But, in Brescia, the hospital admits COVID-19 is overwhelming. There are so many patients awaiting their COVID-19 test, they wait in cots in the hospital laundry room.

  • Sergio Cattaneo (through translator):

    What is really shocking, something we had not been able to forecast and brought us to our knees, is how quickly the epidemic spreads.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Elsewhere, the streets and Italy's most famous sites are empty. Rome, the Eternal City, seems frozen in time. But critics say that isolation came too late.

  • Andrea Crisanti:

    This was a missed opportunity.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Dr. Andrea Crisanti has been watching the virus ravage Italy since the first death in the tiny city of Vo on February 21. Local officials locked Vo down, and Crisanti's team tested all 3,000 residents. That allowed authorities to curtail infection at the earliest signs.

  • Andrea Crisanti:

    Now, with experience that we have in Italy, you really need to bring the place to a standstill. Nobody moves for three to four weeks, and you do tests, as many as possible, around the place where the cluster has appeared. There's no other way.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Crisanti's team brought the infection rate in Vo to zero. But he said Italian authorities didn't learn his most-urgent lesson.

  • Andrea Crisanti:

    Nobody has ever won a war by building more hospitals. You have to build more weapons. And I think the weapon to win in epidemics are measure of containment and surveillance and tracing.

    I regret that I didn't use my scientific approach to challenge and consolidated wisdom, because, you know, I'm a scientist. I tried to convey in a polite, educated way. Probably, I should have been more aggressive.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Despite all the fear, Italians have tried to maintain their hope. Despite their separation, they have maintained their connection.

    In a Lombardy hospital, Dr. Sarah Barbuto used a megaphone to play the Italian national anthem. Doctors sang along through their exhaustion.

  • Sarah Barbuto (through translator):

    I wanted to tell you that, in all of Italy, people are thinking of you. They are hoping that we win this very tough battle. I am sure that this is how it will be.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Outside another hospital, there is a mural: A nurse holds Italy in her arms.

    Dr. Crisanti wants the U.S. to avoid Italy's mistakes.

  • Andrea Crisanti:

    I think they have to take this very seriously, and I think they have to be ruthless in their effort to block the spread of the disease, ruthless in terms of measure and in terms of resource to pour into it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, for now, Italy's doctors have a warning: Get ready. Your country may be next.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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