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‘They’re suffocating to death’: Former Pinecrest Academy student working at the new frontlines of coronavirus pandemic in Italy
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Former Pinecrest Academy student Melissa Butz has lived in Italy for four years working for a TV news agency covering Rome and the Vatican. (Photo courtesy Melissa Butz)

Melissa Butz was traveling by train from Florence, Italy, and the hilltowns of Tuscany back to Rome, about an hour and a half ride, with a car full of passengers wearing masks. 

It was late February, a few weeks before Italy would become the new epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic, before a nationwide lockdown failed to prevent Italy from having more deaths caused by the virus than anywhere else in the world, but tensions were already high.

Soon after Melissa boarded the train, a lady started coughing. For an hour and a half. 

Passengers urged the woman to get off the train, fearful of being exposed to the coronavirus. The woman yelled back in protest.

“That’s kind of when it really became real,” Butz said.

The turmoil in Italy has only worsened since. On Friday, March 20, Italy reported 627 new deaths caused by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, the largest daily increase since the outbreak began in the country, according to the Associated Press. Italy now has over 4,000 deaths, more than in China where the virus started, and 47,000 confirmed cases.

The outbreak has maxed the country’s health care infrastructure and temporarily disrupted life since the country’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, instituted dramatic restrictions on travel. 

“It’s really sad,” Butz said. “People are very suspicious of one another. Italy is a very welcoming country. They do the two kisses [greeting]. They hug. They love to do dinners and lunches together. It’s a very communal country.

“It’s sad to watch the fear just growing.”

'It's really serious'

Butz attended Pinecrest Academy for a time before graduating from Etowah High School, in Cherokee County, in 2008. After graduating from Kennesaw State University, Butz worked at a trade magazine for two years. She wanted to become a more marketable journalist, so she decided to learn Spanish. To do that, she moved to Spain.

After a year and a half, Butz had the opportunity to work as a correspondent for Rome Reports, an agency that provides news packages to television networks around the world. She’d get to cover the Vatican and Rome. To do that, she’d have to learn Italian.

“I was like, Yeah, let’s do it,” she said.

For four years, she’s lived and worked in Rome. Her office is on the main street that leads to the Vatican. 

Butz started out doing stand-up newscasts for stations like Telemundo and CNN Espanol. She’s a senior correspondent now, balancing newscasts with more managerial duties. In 2018, she met Pope Francis. 

“It’s really fun,” Butz said. “I love, love, love TV.”

Her work now revolves around the coronavirus. 

At Rome Reports, she and a team of journalists try to provide a glimpse of its impact on the country to the rest of the world. How churches adjusted practices during mass as the coronavirus started to spread. How the Vatican shut down after the first staff member tested positive for the coronavirus on March 4.

Her life now revolves around the coronavirus, too. If she leaves her home, she has to carry a form that explains why she’s going out, and only three reasons are permitted: going to the grocery store to get food, the pharmacy for a medical emergency or work. Any other reason is subject to a fine or three months in jail. On Tuesday, Italians had to begin carrying another form, signed proof that they don’t have the coronavirus. Violators could spend a year in jail.

“It’s really serious,” Butz said. “They’re checking people. They’re checking cars. All across Italy, not just in Rome. Police are everywhere, everywhere. But one one’s out. Only the homeless people.”

Another life

Early on, Italians were too cavalier about the coronavirus threat, Butz said. 

In Bergamo, the center of the northern Lombardy region, the part of Italy hardest-hit by the coronavirus, the older population continued with their customary traditions. They drank coffee together. They played poker outside cafes.

“It’s just a very communal mindset,” Butz said.

Italians elsewhere were slow to embrace social distancing, too. With schools closed, Italians flocked to traditional tourist sites, like St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.

“No one was quarantining,” Butz said.

Then Conte issued the nationwide lockdown on March 9, extending travel bans across the country that had previously been confined to the northern region.

“If you’re far from your family, tough luck,” Butz said.

Lately, Butz has been encouraged. Those who do go out are wearing gloves and masks. People are staying six feet apart and coughing into their elbows. New restrictions were implemented Friday at grocery stores to limit the number of family members that shop, but customers are being respectful.

“People are not going crazy … and trying to kill each other over toilet paper,” Butz said.

Even in her reporting about the pandemic, Butz tries to “find the beauty in situations.”

At the Vatican, the nuns of Missionaries of Charity, the organization founded by Mother Teresa, has been serving food to the homeless twice a day, masks and all.

A new cardinal made his personal cellphone number public for those in need to call for assistance.

By 6 p.m., as Butz walks home along the deserted streets after a day of work, the windows of nearby apartments and homes begin to open. 

People appear in the window sills, faces isolated in frames, and reach out to one another. 

Together, they sing, using melody to connect.

“Things like that are what I’m trying to focus on,” Butz said.

Foremost in Butz’s mind is her wedding day. She’s marrying an Italian. They plan to wed in Tuscany in June.

She’s optimistic that things will be better in Italy by then, but not enough to plan a honeymoon.

“Just because they won’t allow Italians to go anywhere right now,” she said.

Butz is more worried about how bad things could get in the U.S. by June.

“I think it’s going to explode in the states,” she said.

Most concerning are the things she hears from Americans.

“A lot of Americans are saying, ‘Well, it blew up in Italy because you have a terrible health system there,” Butz said, “or, ‘Italians don’t know how to take care of anything, so this is what’s happening.’

“I think the main thing I keep saying is, this is a pandemic. This is not a problem of one country or another.”

Butz lives next to a hospital. The sirens of ambulances go by every 15 minutes, she said. 

“And you know that that’s another life,” she said, “another family, another husband or wife who’s affected. I mean, everyone’s being affected by this.”

Lasting effects

One conversation is still stuck in Butz’s head. 

It’s one Butz had with her previous roommate, a nurse. She works 15-hour days, she said. She sees the patients with COVID-19 starving for air, she said.

“They’re aware of the situation,” Butz remembers her former roommate saying. “They’re aware that they’re suffocating to death.”

The nurse said that she’s seen patients sense that the end is coming and ask to make phone calls to family who aren’t allowed to visit in the hospital, aching to say one last word to loved ones.

“When we get them on the phone, they have no words,” her former roommate said, “because they can’t breathe.”

It’s convinced Butz that even after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided, when life in Italy and the rest of the world returns to something like what normal used to be, things will be different.

“It’s going to have lasting effects,” she said.