ROME—The white square tent in the parking lot of an IKEA on the outskirts of this city looks like it could be a store display for the latest flat-pack garden gazebo. But behind the flap, health officials in hazmat are carrying out random screenings for COVID-19, a potentially life-saving measure and one of the most proactive ways Italians have found to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, at least for now.
Just a few months ago, Italy was in a very bad place, with contagion rates and deaths breaking daily records, just as we see happening in many American states now. Everyone from Vice President Mike Pence to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned back then that unless measures to mitigate the spread were put in place, they will “end up like Italy.” But in much of the United States those measures were taken too late with too little coordination and lifted too early.
According to the Italian Health Ministry and Civil Protection authorities, which have provided a cohesive national strategy and transparent daily updates since the pandemic first struck in February, Italy went from worst-case scenario to best practice with a strict nationwide lockdown, mandated face coverings inside all public buildings and—here is what is so striking now—rigorous random screening.
Every single day, Italian health authorities are finding thousands of asymptomatic COVID cases through random tests like the ones conducted in the IKEA parking lot. Since the screening started less than a month ago, nearly 21,700 asymptomatic cases have been found, isolated, and the spread contained.
Italians are conducting tests at shopping malls, summer camps, and at the beach. They can be randomly screened for COVID when they go for an X-ray or even at some dental practices. The screening is voluntary, but the health ministry says there is no problem with people refusing to comply. In most cases, people want to know if they have it.
The screening is often done in conjunction with serological antibody testing being conducted across the nation to determine how much of the population has been exposed to the infection. The nationwide antibody testing is being carried out by 700 Red Cross volunteers working to test a sample of the population from six different age groups categorized by gender, employment type, and where they live.
The highest number of serological tests are being carried out in Lombardy and the Veneto regions, which were the hardest hit. Lighter testing is being conducted in the south, where the pandemic was far milder but where random screening is taking place to make sure cases aren’t being imported now that borders are open.
If people are found to have antibodies, they and their close contacts are then swabbed to determine if they have shed the virus or if someone in the immediate household is still infected. Those tested have to quarantine until their swab results come back, which is on average no more than 24 hours in metropolitan areas and slightly longer in smaller villages.
People who have symptoms are also tested easily by calling the state health COVID-19 hotline, from which they are directed to the nearest drive-by testing facility. In the event they cannot drive themselves, health officials will make a house call.
Once asymptomatic cases are confirmed, the Italian health authorities engage in vigorous contact tracing made much easier by mandates requiring patrons of restaurants and other places where COVID can easily jump from person to person to leave phone numbers or emails.
It is common to have to sign in on a tablet or notebook when you arrive at a restaurant if you didn’t make a reservation. (If you made one, they already have your phone number and name.) The alternative to these contact-tracing measures, for the restaurant or other establishment, is to risk being shut down if a case is traced back to them.
There are exceptions, of course, including bars and pubs that are largely closed for indoor service but allow takeout, meaning patrons spill out into the piazzas. To curb the potential contagion that a party atmosphere invites, authorities have closed down several popular squares where people were not practicing social distancing or wearing masks, including the ultra-popular Piazza Trilussa in the Trastevere district of the capital. Similar mini-lockdowns have been carried out in Florence and Milan to try to stave off a second wave. In some cities, they have also forced pubs to close early on weekends to avoid inviting crowds.
Italians are also encouraged to use the government-mandated app called Immuni that assigns a random code to each registered phone. If someone using the app tests positive, it sends a message to every other phone that the person has been near—including at the same restaurant, grocery store, or public transportation—in the last week. The app has been criticized for potential privacy issues, and only 4 million of Italy’s 60 million residents have downloaded it so far, according to Paola Pisano, minister of innovation, technology, and digitization, who said in a recent interview that she hoped half the population downloads it by the fall.
The number of new cases found for each region is published every single day, and includes hospitalizations, the number of people in intensive care units, and deaths. The new cases are further broken down to indicate those from random screenings and those with symptoms seeking tests.
A civil protection spokesperson said the transparency allows citizens to gauge whether they should travel to an area where there is a new outbreak or even pay closer attention to their own behaviors when they are out of their homes. “Information leads to good decision-making,” the spokesperson said. “Ultimately it is up to the individual, but at least they are armed with the latest information.”
Because everyone worked together even when they didn’t want to (face it, no one really wants to wear a mask, especially in the summer), Italians are pretty much back to pre-pandemic life. Schools will open in September with staggered start times and open-air classrooms when possible, with regular screening for teachers. Nightclubs and discotheques likely will remain closed for the foreseeable future, but beaches, restaurants, gyms and movie theaters are open for business, which has made this Italian summer seem pretty normal—and, after all the sacrifices, downright enjoyable.