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Why the U.S. Could Be Worse Off Than Italy With the Coronavirus

Italy is implementing radical new measures against COVID-19, and that could soon be the new normal for other countries fighting the virus. But experts say that a number of unique factors in the U.S. — a sluggish approach to testing, and a lack of public healthcare and paid sick days for some workers — are…

Why the U.S. Could Be Worse Off Than Italy With the Coronavirus

Italy is implementing radical new measures against COVID-19, and that could soon be the new normal for other countries fighting the virus.

But experts say that a number of unique factors in the U.S. — a sluggish approach to testing, and a lack of public healthcare and paid sick days for some workers — are likely to make its battle to contain the outbreak even more difficult than in Europe.

“The situation is even worse for the U.S.,” Francois Balloux, a professor of computational systems biology at University College London, told VICE News. “The U.S. is a special case.”

Italy, battling the deadliest coronavirus outbreak outside China, announced Sunday it was putting an emergency quarantine on 16 million people — a quarter of the population — living in the economically powerful north, including the entire Lombardy region, as well as Milan, Venice, and 14 other provinces.

Under the strict new rules, residents are banned from traveling outside or within the quarantined areas, with exceptions only made for “proven professional needs, exceptional cases and health issues,” according to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Previously, about 50,000 people in badly affected towns in the region had been under lockdown.

In addition, the government announced it was rolling out strict social distancing rules, previously imposed in the north, to the rest of the country, closing museums, movie theaters, and nightclubs.

“It’s our darkest hour, but we will make it,” Conte told La Repubblica newspaper Monday.

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The emergency measures, announced as Italy reported a surge in fatalities from 233 to 366 Sunday, are the most dramatic announced so far by a democratic country in trying to contain the outbreak. Other affected countries are watching their rollout closely, weighing when it’s time to curb personal liberties, and incur a massive economic hit, to try to halt COVID-19’s spread.

Balloux, director of the University College of London’s Genetics Institute, said it was likely that other governments could impose their own regional lockdowns or social distancing rules in coming weeks, as the scale of their crisis caught up with Rome’s.

United States’ challenge

But he believed the U.S. was facing an even bigger challenge than Europe in limiting the spread of the virus, due to several factors.

Despite the U.S. government’s pledges to ramp up testing capacity, it appeared that far fewer tests were being carried out in the U.S. than in other affected countries in Europe.

“There’s very little testing; it’s lagged quite badly behind,” he said. “There’s a lot of unknowns.”

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Exact figures are difficult to establish since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that it would no longer provide an official tally of tests conducted or under investigation, because states and private institutions had been authorized to conduct their own tests.

But an analysis by The Atlantic published Friday could only confirm 1,895 tests carried out in the U.S., where the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases passed 550 Monday. By contrast, in the U.K., where 319 cases have been confirmed, health authorities have conducted more than 20,000 tests.

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told Al Jazeera that problems with the U.S. testing system meant the country lagged “behind much of the rest of the world” when it came to testing.

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