A View from Tuscany

HCAM has always identified itself as a nimble organization that can be flexible and pivot based on the community’s needs. At no other time is this more palpable than in 2020 as we head into celebrating our 23rd year! Prior to Maryland closing down non-essential businesses and day cares, HCAM’s CEO, Traci Kodeck, had been following the shut-down of Italy. This was mostly from a public health perspective, but especially because of her childhood friend, Jodi Cutler, continued to share the “view from Tuscany” in her daily blog. Traci felt it was pertinent to learn more about Italy’s focus on taming the COVID-19 disease in a country with universal health care. Join us to learn more through her eyes…

“On my way back home to Italy from Baltimore on January 29th, I had a six hour layover at London Heathrow Airport, so I decided to get something to eat at one of the airport restaurants. I saw an incredibly mouthwatering picture of a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, and just had to have it.

I walked into the restaurant and observed all the other world travelers. You never really know a person’s final destination or even their departure gate, but you can always tell an American by their shoes, usually white sneakers. I sat down at my table for one, placed my trolley under the table, my cell to my right, my tablet in front of me, and ordered a cup of coffee with my food. As I struggled to drink the worst cup of coffee I ever tasted, I observed the people at the surrounding tables.

I had read various articles about the virus spreading throughout Wuhan before traveling and had packed a mask  and a bunch of Vitamin C chewables the night before I left, just in case. The threat of the virus was tangible in the USA even at that moment on Jan. 29th.

I wondered if anyone had recently been to China and heard the man at the table next to me talking about how amazing Singapore had been. Sitting in that airport cafe, I realized how easily the virus could spread, how we are all connected, and how truly vulnerable you can feel in the face of something over which you have no control.

When I got back to Tuscany, I continued tracking the COVID-19 virus, and started stocking my home with pasta, toilet paper and water as I saw Northern Italy’s cases start rising very quickly. Still no virus in Tuscany.

Friends and family from the US would write to me and say, “You’d better get on a plane and come back here, it isn’t safe in Italy.” I would simply reply, there is no place I would rather be than Italy in a pandemic.

Based on the dramatic events unfolding in Northern Italy, the government instituted a National lock-down on March 10th. Since that time, I have been in my house with my 17 year old daughter Sofia, and my 23 year old son Jordan. My companion is locked down in his home with his daughter. We Facetime briefly at least 5 times a day, with a one hour conversation from midnight to one am after movie time with our respective children.

We have been stuck in the house for 35 days, and I have prepared a total of 105 meals (not quite sure how many were edible, but give a girl a high five for effort). Everything is closed except for essential businesses, no take-out or delivery where I live. I go to the supermarket in town once every 10 days to stock up on food for as long as possible to avoid returning and risking contagion.

Food shopping has become the highlight of my life, because I use the opportunity to stop at my partner’s house before I go to the supermarket. This is my one ten minute time frame where I can touch him, hug him, kiss him, and hold his hand; I also sniff his neck repeatedly to try and capture as much of him as possible to last me another ten days. The 8 miles that separate our houses may as well be 8,000 miles.

I actually shower to go food shopping, because the alternative would be totally irresponsible. I also put on a pair of jeans to test exactly where the excessive chocolate I’ve been eating has landed, and I apply make up. I am allowed to walk my dog within a distance of 200 meters of my home. My average steps have gone from 12,000 to 2,000 a day. Although my roots glow a silvery, gray, I refuse to wear the trendy snow hats that women across Italy are wearing as they stand in the appropriately socially distanced lines outside the supermarkets.

Before leaving my house, I must fill out an Auto-Certification form with my personal data and be prepared to explain my reason for leaving my house when stopped by the police. If you are stopped by the police and do not have a valid reason for leaving the house, potential fines range from 500 euros to 4000 euros and jail time: a lock-down violation is considered a criminal offence. Only one person can leave the house to go food shopping. I also place two Ikea bags, paper towels, a pair of latex gloves and disinfectant spray in my trunk, so that I disinfect all groceries before bringing them home.

In some parts of Italy, people have been assigned specific days and times during the week to do their food shopping. Our shelves are stocked, the only thing that tends to be missing is yeast. Italians love their daily fresh bread, so to avoid recurring trips to the supermarket, they home bake.

Since the lock-down began, many things have changed.

The price of gasoline is 1.01 € / L, down from 1.49 € / L pre-COVID-19. In 5 weeks of lock-down, I still have ¾ of a tank of gas left after starting with a full tank. Schools are closed and students are participating in online classes. Because this was a federal government mandated decree, funds have been made available to ensure that all students have access to a tablet or computer and internet. All students officially pass the school year. My daughter attends her classes in pajamas and her French teacher yelled at her for inappropriate behavior when my cat ran across the keyboard during an exam.

Social distancing is mandatory and grocery stores and pharmacies have begun placing masking tape on the floors to ensure these distances (2 m) are respected. A limited number of people are allowed in the stores, and this number is controlled by spot inspections performed by military police.

Parks, stadiums, athletics seasons, sporting events, weddings, baptisms,concerts, festivals, and funerals, etc. have all been canceled throughout the entire country.

There is a shortage of masks, so individuals have been making homemade versions, including some made of plastic so that people with hearing loss can speech-read. A couple of days ago, the Region of Tuscany made it obligatory to wear masks in public, and distributed 4 masks to each family that were personally delivered, house to house by volunteers.

Every day at 6:30 pm the Civil Protection Agency holds a nationally televised press conference to read the numbers of new cases, deaths and those who have recovered from the virus.

Italy has a universal healthcare system. The National Health Service was created in 1978. Healthcare is provided to all citizens and residents by a mixed public-private system. The public part is the national health service, Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (SSN), which is organized under the Ministry of Health and is administered on a regional basis.

Italy has one of the best healthcare systems in the world, and it does not discriminate or refuse care to any individual. I have had many opportunities to work with medical professionals on all levels, and I never cease to be amazed by their incredible competence, professionalism and ethics. Italy is an organized machine, and although each region may operate separately, in this time of crisis, the Premier Giuseppe Conte has stepped up to the plate to lead the entire country in a national lock-down to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Politicians may be divided on certain aspects, and the economic sector may view the pandemic in a different light than the scientific community, but at the end of the day, the numbers speak an undeniable truth. Our medical professionals are struggling under tremendous physical and emotional burdens, and the entire country is united in placing our collective health as our number one priority. Businesses are failing, people are struggling to buy groceries, there are many question marks about how exactly the government will offer financial aid in the recovery to follow. But one thing is certain, every single Italian will have access to free healthcare.

I’ve been writing a daily Facebook journal that began as a warning of what was to come for my friends and family in the States, because there was no way the virus was in Milan and not New York City. I made a mistake in one of those posts, when I wrote, “We’re all in the same boat.” We are not all in the same boat: some are in yachts, some are in paddle-boats, and some are in canoes. Some people have room service, swimming pools and home gyms, while others are fishing for their food and struggling to entertain 5 children under the age of ten. Some people are fighting mental health battles against fear and solitude.

I have learned to take it one sip of coffee at a time, one strawberry at a time, and one smile at a time. I take power naps, I joined an amazing meditation group, and my daughter and I finished watching every Harry Potter movie and have just started the Twilight series. We hold hands while watching. Tell the ones you love how very important they are to you.

What I’ve been living in Italy is what you are living now, with all the psychological, physical and economical ramifications. How you choose to live this moment now, will define your future. Keep your eyes on the possibilities, not the limitations, and remember to thoroughly wash your hands.”

Jodi Michelle Cutler
Author of The Land of Between: From Birth to Cochlear Implant Surgery