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Italy, Seen By White House As A U.S. Analogue, Extends Nationwide Lockdown

A soldier walks past the Pantheon monument in central Rome on April 1, as Italy extends its lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 disease. The country has more than 110,000 coronavirus cases.
Filippo Monteforte
AFP via Getty Images
A soldier walks past the Pantheon monument in central Rome on April 1, as Italy extends its lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the COVID-19 disease. The country has more than 110,000 coronavirus cases.

Italy is extending its coronavirus lockdown to April 13, as the country's death toll from COVID-19 now tops 13,000 people. The death toll rose by the smallest amount in days, but officials say it's too soon to declare the epidemic over. The number of new cases, which had been declining, was higher than the previous day.

News of the continued lockdown in Italy comes after members of the White House's coronavirus task force referred to Italy as an example of how the coronavirus could play out in the U.S.

"We think Italy may be the most comparable area to the United States at this point," Vice President Pence said during an interview with CNN Wednesday.

Hours later, Italy's health ministry said the country's death toll had risen to 13,155, with a total of more than 110,000 cases. More than 28,000 people are hospitalized. By contrast, the U.S. now has more than 200,000 confirmed cases.

Italy's population is equal to about 19% of the U.S. total: around 62 million people, compared to some 332 million in the U.S., according to the most recent CIA World Factbook data.

On Wednesday, Italy's leaders said the coronavirus crisis is far from over, despite reaching a plateau in new cases.

"Addressing the nation, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told Italians, we realize we're asking for more sacrifices but we're facing an acute emergency and we cannot lift the lockdown now," NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome for our Newscast unit.

Italians face fines of around $230 if they violate lockdown restrictions. In his remarks, Conte also compared the COVID-19 pandemic to "an epochal tsunami" that requires new thinking in order to cope with it.

In the U.S., Dr. Deborah Birx said Italy is starting to see progress in its fight against the coronavirus, saying at a White House briefing Tuesday, "you can see that they're beginning to turn the corner in new cases."

"This is what gives us a lot of hope," Birx said, showing a graphic depicting Italy's curve of new cases finally starting to descend from its height.

People in Italy, Birx added, are "entering their fourth week of full mitigation and showing what is possible when we work together as a community, as a country, to change the course of this pandemic together."

The U.S. is not under a national lockdown order, although many states have suspended school and business operations and ordered residents to stay at home for all but essential activities. President Trump has asked Americans to stay home when they can, and to avoid forming groups of 10 or more people, through the end of April.

Administration officials say the mitigation efforts are working: without them, they say, about 2.2 million Americans could die during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they also warn that even if Americans closely follow federal advice, current projection models still predict between 100,000 to 240,000 deaths in the U.S.

In Tuesday's briefing, Birx was asked to discuss which groups of Americans are most vulnerable to dying from COVID-19.

She replied, in part, "We're seeing in New York exactly what we saw in Italy: very low mortality. Not to say that young people under 30 or young people under 40 aren't getting ill. They are, but most of them are recovering. So the profile looks identical to Italy, with increasing mortality, with age and preexisting medical conditions."

Dr. Anthony Fauci said that overall, the picture should encourage Americans to observe strict mitigation measures, including social distancing. As Birx did, he used Italy as an example of the horrible toll that awaits the U.S., even if Americans heed federal guidance to wash hands and avoid public contact.

"The deaths and the intensive care and the hospitalization always lag behind that early indication that there are less new cases per day," Fauci said, "the way we saw in Italy and the way we're likely seeing — I don't want to jump the gun on it — we're seeing little inklings of this right now in New York."

"We're going to continue to see things go up," Fauci warned. "We cannot be discouraged by that because the mitigation is actually working and will work."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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