Mini-episode: Andy Calls CBS Correspondent Seth Doane in Rome
This week Andy talks to CBS’ Rome correspondent Seth Doane about his experience covering COVID-19 in Italy and being quarantined himself after testing positive for the virus. They talk about what the US can learn from Italy, the war-like experience of fighting a pandemic, and the bright spots of unity that Seth has witnessed in hard-hit Italian communities.
https://tinyurl.com/unqd8ga — CBS News, lessons from Italy
[00:15] Andy Slavitt: Welcome to In the Bubble with Andy Slavitt. I had a chance to chat with CBS’ Rome correspondent, Seth Doane. Seth works closely with the Vatican, the U.N., and covers news throughout Italy. You know, Italy has been one of the first places to be hit hard by the coronavirus. The death toll has been extraordinarily high in the northern part of the country. And Seth and his husband have both had Covid-19. Seth was exposed, fell ill, was tested and is now just on the other side of healing from the disease. He kindly let me record our call so you could get a sense of the experience in Italy, and his own experience with Covid, as well as what needs to happen next in Italy and what we can learn here.
[01:01] Andy Slavitt: Seth Doane, welcome to In the Bubble. How are you, Seth?
[01:04] Seth Doane: I’m just fine. Getting better every day after a Covid-19 diagnosis. But all things considered, I feel good. Thanks.
[01:14] Andy Slavitt: How long ago did you contract Covid-19?
[01:18] Seth Doane: It’s unclear exactly which day, but beginning of March. And it seems to me I was exposed to a couple of people with it. My guess is it took kind of four or five days to start getting symptoms. And then probably by the end of that week, I was able to get tested here. Health workers came to my home in Rome, Italy, and gave me these swab tests, which you’ve probably now seen pictures of, that are rather uncomfortable going right up on both sides of your nose and your nostril and then back into the back of your throat.
[01:51] Andy Slavitt: How did you trace where you got it from? Since you mentioned you were in contact with some people, did they do contact tracing and connect to you, or did you loop back and find out that some other folks also had Covid-19?
[02:04] Seth Doane: I had heard that I had been exposed to people who had tested positive. Several people who had tested positive. So I got word that they had tested positive. At the time, I was really just starting to — you know, I thought maybe I had a little bit of a cold. I had barely any symptoms. I was starting to get a little bit of a cough. So then once I heard that I had had this exposure to several people, we called the hotline here, a national coronavirus hotline in Italy. And they said, OK, you need to stay at home. You have a mandatory doctor-ordered lockdown and we will come out and do the test and see if you’re positive or negative. It turned out I was positive, but from that time that I had known contact with positive cases, I’ve been at home. Right now, it’s been 20 days at home.
[02:58] Andy Slavitt: What’s the quarantine period?
[02:59] Seth Doane: Well, generally, you hear about 14 days. But I was very fortunate, I had very mild symptoms. So I had kind of flu-like symptoms, some strange aches and pains and such. But they monitored us, they called us twice a day, every day, and checked our temperature via the telephone, asked us to check our temperature. And they were just monitoring to make sure there were not some symptoms that they were concerned about. There never were. So they said, look, this is just going to run its course. After you lose your last symptom, give us a call and we’ll schedule an appointment. And that’s what I’m waiting for now. I need to have two negative tests, separated by 24 hours to be given the all-clear and to be, in essence, freed into our locked-down world. There’s not much I can do here in Italy. You can go to the grocery store. You can go to the pharmacy. Some people are allowed to go to work. As a journalist, I would be allowed to work, but options are limited. But I’m waiting for these two negative tests.
[03:54] Andy Slavitt: So you’ve just succeeded in making everybody in the U.S. incredibly jealous that you got access to tests, you’re getting access to physicians. You’re getting multiple access to tests. And as you may know, here in the US, we’re a little bit behind you, but beginning to see the onslaught here, that’s just not happening as well.
[04:15] Seth Doane: Yeah and that’s really a huge issue when we look at these countries that have managed to combat this with some success. It all comes down to testing. It comes down to testing and tracing contacts. Being very strategic. Following the lines here of who has been infected. And then obviously locking down those people. One of the huge issues also is just the number of asymptomatic folks who are carrying this, and the community spread is the huge, huge issue. And doctors here, for weeks we’ve been interviewing doctors who’ve said, listen, by the time this explodes in hospitals — in fact, we’ve been hearing from doctors who say if there’s a war in this hospital, but it’s as though the bomb hasn’t gone off outside. It’s gone off inside the hospital. They say by the time some of these patients get to the hospital, it’s too late. It is vital that people stop this infection from circulating in the community. But to do that, you have to know who’s infected. And certainly in the U.S., as you point out, that’s not happening widely. In fact, I have friends who have managed to get tests and have waited five, six, seven days before they’ve gotten results. And these are people who are getting tests and in some cases are still moving around the communities, possibly infecting people before they get the results.
[05:37] Andy Slavitt: So the reports in Italy are of very high death tolls and images that I think we normally only see during combat scenes in hospitals. Scenes of large numbers of physicians not being able to work because they’re falling ill themselves. Can you maybe just update us on what the situation on the ground looks like?
[06:01] Seth Doane: Well, you describe a war-type setting, and I think that’s the way many doctors would describe it here in Italy. They are fighting a war, a war that is in many ways global and is certainly beyond the borders here of Italy. But Italy happened to get hit, in terms of Western countries, very early on. Doctors here in Italy are saying, I hope, I wish that American doctors would look at what’s happening here and take the advantage of time. Obviously, that time is dissipating, disappearing in some cases as hospitals certainly in New York and such are beginning to really see the numbers that we’ve seen here in Italy. And as you say, they are having to make very hard choices with limited equipment here. I interviewed a doctor, an anesthesiologist who was part of the team who came up with some of those guidelines that were issued here in Italy about who should be prioritized if a hospital gets to a point here where they don’t have enough equipment to go around, and you have to prioritize one patient over another patient who is likely to do better coming out of the ICU, who’s likely to survive and live a longer life. So, yes, you have doctors working with very little. You have hospitals reimagining their workflow, making operating rooms into ICU areas, accepting more patients than they ever thought they could, in some cases doubling the number of ICU beds they have. It is very much a war here.
[07:31] Andy Slavitt: Let’s dig into that a little bit. And I want to do it in a sensitive way, because one thing we know for sure is that the hospitals and the doctors are doing the absolute best they can under these circumstances. Is it indeed true that there is a triage process, and there are decisions that are being made to not treat patients because of a lack of an ICU, bed or a ventilator? Is that indeed happening? Is that widespread? Is it just that occasional story?
[08:01] Seth Doane: I don’t know how widespread it is. I mean, my kind of personal experience with this is interviewing this anesthesiologist who helped draft those guidelines, and he said, you know, in a perfect world, you would have much more peer review, you would have much more time spent on this. But there’s certainly a reality in Italian hospitals. So I haven’t spoken specifically with doctors who have told me about those choices that they’ve made. But the closest I’ve gotten with this is with this anesthesiologist who said that this is what these hospitals are facing, and you need to have some guidelines so that doctors know how to do this. This is not the choice that doctors — doctors are used to making difficult choices, but these are not the types of choices you want to make.
[08:42] Andy Slavitt: Absolutely. And is there anything that people in the U.S. — I know that we’re facing our own crisis. But there also is a generous spirit here in the U.S. There’s a lot of people in the U.S. that have friends and family in Italy. Is there anything people here can do? Is there any place we can point them and we’re happy to post something and just let people know.
[09:03] Seth Doane: I think it’s a few things that we’re learning from Italy that can be applied to the West, to the U.S. and further west to America and such, places that are a few weeks behind. One is to not waste that time. We’re hearing that from doctors here. Prepare, prepare, prepare. One of the other things that we’re starting to see, our numbers are still — in terms of death numbers and new infections — they seem to be starting to go on a downward trend. It’s hard to know after just a couple of days, but we’re seeing a decreasing percentage of infections day after day, which is encouraging. Still death numbers, which obviously lagged behind because you’re talking about the effects of weeks before, but you’re seeing some encouraging trends here in Italy. And I’ve been asking doctors how long until they are really seeing the effects of the lockdown in these hospitals. And I’ve heard now from several doctors who said they think from the lockdown to feeling the effects in the hospitals, probably at least 10 days, if not, you know, closer to probably several weeks, three weeks. So I would say another lesson would be patience. One of the other things that we saw here in Italy, at first there was a lockdown just of the north. And then there was a national lockdown, but I was still out on the streets reporting on that first day of that national lockdown. And frankly, it felt a little bit like a lockdown-lite, because you had retail stores still open, restaurants were allowed to be open at that point until 6 p.m.. So then as cases continued to mount, the Italians locked down even further. They’ve upped the fines from a couple hundred euros to several thousand euros. I’ve just seen on my terrace standing out doing laundry, drones overhead, helicopters on a beautiful Saturday day where people might be inclined to go out. I’ve seen certainly more enforcement from the sky here in the center of Rome trying to encourage people to be in. And I think Italians are taking it very seriously. Friends are delivering groceries to us because we’re not allowed to leave the house. And we’re hearing that people are taking things very seriously, standing far apart, standing in long lines to get into grocery stores. So I think the lessons to be learned in America are most of all are patience, taking these lockdowns seriously. We’re hearing doctors say, look, these lockdowns must be draconian, they must be rigorous, they must be put in place as soon as possible. And then after this is all done, like after a war, the economy will restart. People are incredibly resilient, but you need to make these sacrifices now to stop this community spread.
[11:47] Andy Slavitt: So you make an incredibly important point. This patience point, which is that there is going to be a lag between our behavior and the action and the result we want to see. In San Francisco, for example, Santa Clara, which was one of the first places to take strict measures here in the U.S., we are now right about at that two-week point. And there’s a lot of early data which suggests that is the right move and that it pays off. The thing that I think I hear from you, that’s important for this podcast listeners and everybody else here in the U.S. to understand, is that two to three week lag is so important, it sounds like, to making sure that we are on top of this and not expecting to see results right away. Because here in the U.S., we like it right away. We want to have what we want when we want it.
[12:40] Seth Doane: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that patience is a key lesson here. And obviously with those early lockdowns, as you mentioned — that was one thing one doctor told me, I wish we had locked things down 10 days earlier. You think of the ripple effects of curtailing people’s movement early on. And you know, when the issues, as you know with this, is that you have so many asymptomatic carriers. Even for me, if I hadn’t known that I was exposed to people who had tested positive for Covid-19, I don’t know that I would have thought that much about the symptoms I had because they were flu-like. So if you have people running around out there spreading not really knowing, there’s just that incredible ripple effect through communities.
[13:23] Andy Slavitt: You would have infected other people. So we’ve covered some of this ground. Some of the things that you’ve told us would suggest that things like the case fatality rates are going to be impacted by access to hospital beds and vents and that there’s a little bit of a lag effect. So that the actions we take today to allow people to get access to those beds and vents, it’s going to be really essential for people to focus on. I want to turn a little bit and talk about what this feels like to you as a reporter covering this. One of the things that you do so well, that’s an important part of your job, is to put the news into context. You’ve already boiled it down for us and I think a pretty compelling way. But this notion of the context of the time we’re going through, how do you think we will look back on this when it’s over?
[14:16] Seth Doane: I think it’s the biggest event of my lifetime. I’m 41. I hope it continues to be the biggest event. I can’t imagine something that is more disruptive to more people. And, you know, I’ve covered wars around the world, I’ve been to Afghanistan and Iraq and Kuwait covering the Iraq war. And this is a world war, and we are all affected. I’m one of the lucky ones. Yes, I’ve got this terrible virus. But I’ve been very fortunate to have very limited symptoms. I’ve just been inconvenienced. I’m lucky to have a job where I can work at home. So the blessings are very long, I recognize. But we’re in the middle of a world war in many ways I would say. Here in Italy, I have huge concerns about the economy. I have huge concerns about the recovery. When we hear numbers like the U.S. $2 trillion dollars to try to stimulate the economy, that would never be possible. Obviously I realize Italy’s not the same scale. But you have an economy that was already fragile. You have a country full of very small business, a country that is so dependent on tourism, even just looking about in my own family, I have family members who have canceled trips here and family members who don’t even want to replan for the fall because there’s not enough of a sense of where this is going. So I think we have unimaginable kind of ripple effects here, and it’s hard to really know. In a way, one doctor I interviewed said we’re trying to build the boat while we’re sailing. It’s impossible to know exactly where we are. We’re in the middle of this crisis. Actually, I would say from covering wars, that can be one thing — it can be very hard. You go to Afghanistan and you’re covering the war and you’re in the middle of it. But it can be very hard to see the entire context, even if you’re in the middle of it, because there are so many ripple effects you can’t quite imagine. So I think we will only appreciate this with time, but the impact is extraordinary.
[16:20] Andy Slavitt: Do you think we’ll ever be shaking hands again? Do you think you’ll ever shake anyone’s hand again?
[16:24] Seth Doane: Well, I used to be based in China, and we had an office in Japan. I loved going to Tokyo. And I always thought the bowing actually was very nice, because I grew up in a family of people who were very happy to shake hands. And my dad was a politician in Massachusetts, so I grew up understanding the importance of a good, firm handshake. But I’d say we’re all second-guessing that now.
[16:50] Andy Slavitt: We have a family of huggers and emotional people, so it’ll be interesting to see how that changes, whether we can, you know, kiss each other through masks. I want to just finish up by asking you to talk to people here who are in quarantine. How hard is it? How best to get through it? How do you keep yourself occupied? How do you keep yourself sane?
[17:12] Seth Doane: Well, I would say just from a very humble perspective, I think I have it about as easy as anyone, so I can’t complain. I had mild symptoms. It’s a little worrying when you’re feeling this weight on your — I had this kind of pressure on my chest. But I’ve been so lucky in doing reporting and talking with other people with serious symptoms, I feel like I can’t even begin to imagine the fear and obviously the loss, people losing their lives. So that aside, mine is more of just a matter of structuring your day, of finding — in some ways, as somebody who’s lived overseas in different foreign postings for the last seven years out of the U.S., I’ve gotten very used to not seeing really close friends all the time. And in some ways I feel like I’ve had more contact with friends. Zoom is an amazing thing.
[18:04] Seth Doane: And we’ve even changed it up. We had a black-tie Zoom dinner the other night. We now plan our weekends and say, OK, we should call this person at that point and this person at that point. The trainer that we have at the gym here, obviously the gyms have been closed for weeks. No one’s going to the gym. But we all meet and do a virtual training. Thank goodness for social media I guess at this point, in terms of keeping us connected. For all of the terrible ways that it can divide us in some ways, here it is playing a role in keeping us together. And I live in Italy. Good food. I’m lucky to have a neighbor who delivers groceries. So we have a long list of things, and there’s lots of discussion as to what we’re going to eat in this kind of culinary quarantine. So there are some things I would like to do. It would be nice to be on street level. I live on the fourth floor. I haven’t been on street level for 20 days. I can’t wait to take out my trash, which we finally moved from the kitchen to the terrace. Thankfully, we have a terrace, we can step outside. But taking out the trash after 20-whatever it will be days will be huge/
[19:13] Andy Slavitt: I hear you saying that even in the midst of wartime, and even in the midst of terrible tragedy, it’s OK to still feel joy. And still do the things that give you pleasure. Whether that’s laughing or eating or socializing with your friends differently and keeping those bonds. And for a lot of people, that will maybe not only help them get through, but create some really meaningful memories that they might not otherwise have had. And I think it’s important to hear people say that you don’t have to feel guilty when horrible things are going on for continuing to live your life.
[19:51] Seth Doane: Yeah, I absolutely think you have to find some joy in all of this if you can, wherever you can find it. It’s one of the things I loved about the Italians going to their windows. It was one of the things — when I was really earlier on in this and more concerned and sicker, that 6 p.m. moment when we would go to the windows, and you would blast music and hear people applaud and sing, and there was this moment of community across Italy that was so beautiful. I find now people are at home and they’re looking out the windows. And I’ll often look out the window and just wave to people in a way that I never did before. So we’re redefining community in all of this, but I think community is as important as ever. And it’s still there. You just have to find a new way to figure it out.
[20:38] Andy Slavitt: Well, I’ve one final question for you, which is a dilemma that I’m facing. Like you, I’m on TV once in a while. My dilemma is bad haircut or fluffy hair?
[20:51] Seth Doane: Big, big question. I have the same dilemma. I do not have an answer to that. Right now, I’d say it’s just bad, fluffy hair.
[21:01] Andy Slavitt: Bad, fluffy hair. Maybe that’ll be the thing of 2020. Well, Seth, it was great for you to talk with us, share your experience from Italy. We’re hoping you’re feeling better. Good luck to you. Good luck to everyone in Italy. And we will be talking again.
[21:17] Seth Doane: Thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure to talk with you.
[21:22] Andy Slavitt: We’re wishing all the best to Seth and really keeping all the hardest hit places in our hearts and our minds as we go about the next week. Our new full episode is going to be up on Wednesday. It’s gonna be a great one. It’s with the former surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who had a chance to serve along. And I think you’ll find he’s an amazing guy. So stay well. Stay home. Thank you for listening.
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