An Italian doctor at the epicentre of the coronavirus response shares his best advice for the US to avoid being overwhelmed by the pandemic

JAMA via YouTubeDr. Maurizio Cecconi.

Italy has quickly become one of the epicenters of the coronavirus pandemic.

In a conversation hosted by the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Maurizio Cecconi, the head of the department of anesthesia and intensive care units at Humanitas Research Hospital in Milan, said Italy’s situation began on February 20, when a patient in his 30s tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Friday, Italy had more than 15,000 infections and more than 1,000 deaths related to COVID-19. The country has taken drastic steps, such as locking down the country. In the parts of the country hardest hit by the coronavirus, clinicians are facing a shortage of medical supplies and hospital beds. Doctors are being forced to make tough decisions about whom to treat.

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As the case count rises in the US, the country’s health system can stand to learn from Italy’s experience. Cecconi shared his recommendations for the country, as well as the rest of the world.

Most importantly: “Don’t underestimate this,” he said. “This is not a normal flu. This is serious.”

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While he said the majority of people who get infected will recover on their own, he’s noticed that the percentage who need hospitalisation is high – especially in the intensive care units.

“Get ready,” he said. That includes making sure hospitals are ready for a surge in patients, finding spots in the hospital that can be devoted to those with the coronavirus, and adding ICU bed capacity.

Ideally, this should happen before the outbreak gets bad in your hospital’s area.

“Make sure that if an outbreak comes, a cluster comes close to you, you don’t lose by putting the plan in action,” Cecconi said.

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Italy coronavirusClaudio Furlan/LaPresse via APThe hospital of Brescia, Italy, on March 10.

Hospitals can’t win with increased capacity alone

As important as it is for hospitals to prepare, containment and mitigation manoeuvres to stop the spread of the virus are also crucial, he said.

“Do not think that you can win this battle just by increasing your capacity,” Cecconi said. “Containment, mitigation manoeuvres, slowing down manoeuvres are equally important if not more important than anything we can do as doctors.”

To win, it will take government and citizens helping out as well. That includes drastic steps like cancelling major events, having employees work from home, and other moves to limit the spread of the virus.

Protective social-distancing measures like closing workplaces and cancelling large gatherings such as sports games are key in mitigating the spread of the COVID-19 virus, as illustrated by a chart from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

That, in turn, would help stop the virus from overwhelming the US healthcare system.

Coronavirus covid 19 spread healthcare system protective measures 4x3Samantha Lee/Business Insider

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“If the moment comes where your government in the US or in any other country mandates self-isolation or any other manoeuvre, I think it is the personal responsibility of every citizen to do that,” Cecconi said. “Because if you don’t take down the transmission of the virus, then the capacity of your system will be overwhelmed.”

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