“Get Ready”: From Italy’s Doctors, a Dire Warning for America on COVID-19

FRONTLINE producer Sasha Achilli films at a hospital that's treating an influx of COVID-19 patients in hard-hit Cremona, Italy.

FRONTLINE producer Sasha Achilli films at a hospital that's treating an influx of COVID-19 patients in hard-hit Cremona, Italy. (Arianna Pagani)

March 23, 2020

The photo was stark and powerful: A nurse in Northern Italy, collapsed across her keyboard, exhausted from shift after shift of caring for COVID-19 patients.

Spreading quickly across social media earlier in March, the image would quickly become emblematic of the reality facing health care workers in Italy, where the spiraling coronavirus outbreak has overwhelmed the country’s health care system.

When she saw the photo, FRONTLINE producer Sasha Achilli couldn’t turn away.

Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 1.05.10 PM
(Francesca Mangiatordi)

Born and raised in Northern Italy and now based in London, Achilli tracked down the doctor who took the viral photograph — Dr. Francesca Mangiatordi. Achilli negotiated access to the Ospedale Maggiore di Cremona, a hospital in hard-hit Cremona, Italy, where Mangiatordi and her colleagues are treating a deluge of COVID-19 patients.

And on March 18 — the day before Italy became the new global epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with its death toll surpassing China’s — Achilli landed on the ground to begin filming the fight against COVID-19 in her home country, for an upcoming FRONTLINE documentary.

In the newest episode of “Covering Coronavirus,” a special podcast series from the FRONTLINE Dispatch, Achilli speaks with FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath about what she’s seeing as she films inside the hospital: Patients waiting in the hallway as doctors try to figure out where they should go, people hooked up to ventilators and struggling to breathe, and doctors and nurses being forced to make impossibly difficult decisions.

“Francesca said this to me, she said, ‘We have been taught to give the same level of care for the 94-year-old, you keep them alive no matter what,'” Achilli says. But now, with the system overwhelmed, doctors and nurses are having to factor age into their choices of who gets what care: “If you have a younger person who’s ill, then they will give the ventilator to the younger person over the older person,” Achilli says.

As cases in the U.S. mount, the doctors Achilli is filming with have a dire warning for America.

“They’re saying, ‘get ready,’” Achilli says.

Achilli was also part of the team that led FRONTLINE’s investigation into missteps in the global response to the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. In the podcast episode, she also speaks with Aronson-Rath about the differences between the two diseases.

With COVID-19, “there are many people who are asymptomatic who can be spreaders but don’t have symptoms,” Achilli says. “And that is what’s so different and terrifying about this virus versus Ebola.”

For the full conversation, listen to “Covering Coronavirus: Cremona, Italy,” from the FRONTLINE Dispatch. It’s available on Apple PodcastsStitcherRadioPublicGoogle Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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