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American quarantined in Italy advises preparation for effects of coronavirus

Christine Strickland and her husband, Jeremiah Strickland, a security forces E-6 technical sergeant, assigned to Aviano Air Base, Italy, appear near their home in northeastern Italy with their three children. They currently are quarantined due to the coronavirus outbreak.

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By JAMES NEAL | The Times-Tribune | Published: March 18, 2020

Read more coronavirus coverage from Stars and Stripes.

(Tribune News Service) — An Air Force spouse currently living under quarantine in Italy is warning locals in her hometown of Enid, Oklahoma, to take the coronavirus seriously, and to be prepared.

Christine Strickland and her husband, security forces Tech Sgt. Jeremiah Strickland, have been stationed at Aviano Air Base in northeast Italy for almost three years.

Strickland said she, her husband and their three children, a 7-year-old son and two daughters, ages 5 and 3, have enjoyed living in Italy.

"It's a beautiful country," she said. "It takes a lot of adjustment. The culture is obviously different, but it's beautiful."

'Maybe it won't reach us'

When the news of coronavirus first reached the military families living near Aviano, Strickland said it didn't cause much concern.

"It was originally several hours away from us, and at first we all thought, 'Maybe it won't reach us,'" Strickland said. "It broke out very slowly, so we thought it was going to be a temporary situation."

But, things escalated rapidly. From mid-February to now, the World Health Organization reports more than 17,600 coronavirus cases in Italy, resulting in more than 1,260 deaths.

About a week after the first reports, news came of the virus being closer to Aviano. And then, Strickland said, things began to change quickly.

"One night we went out, and the restaurants were still open," she said. "We went to sleep at nine that night, and I woke up at midnight with one of my kids, and they'd ordered everything except grocery stores and pharmacies to close."

She said weekly updates on the virus quickly became an almost-hourly ordeal. Her kids' schools closed on Feb. 25 and instructed the children to stay at home.

"Now, every morning when we wake up, there's a new decree," Strickland said, "and every new decree brings new challenges every day."

Her husband still goes to work at the air base, but he's expected to be put on partial hours, Strickland said.

Only one member per household is allowed to go to the grocery store or pharmacy. Stores limit how many customers can be inside at a time, and people in all public spaces must remain at least one meter apart from each other.

Even at home, there are limits to how people use their yards and porches.

"It's to the point my children are not allowed to leave my yard, and if they're outside they have to be one meter apart," Strickland said. "They cannot even play close together."

She said authorities worry about children carrying the virus and transmitting it to at-risk adults, so she's not allowed to leave home with her kids.

"I am not allowed to leave my house at all with my children," she said. "My children are not allowed to go out."

A couple of weeks with nowhere to go wears on young children -- and their parents -- quickly. Strickland said her youngest daughter doesn't really understand why they can't leave the house. The older kids miss school and their friends, she said.

"They're very restless," she said. "There's only so much we can do, and a lot of people are getting cabin fever."

Strickland said the Air Force "has been amazing" at keeping the families informed. The quarantine has been the hardest, she said, on single parents, who aren't allowed to leave home with their kids to shop for food and medicine, and can't go to work. All child care facilities in the region are closed, Strickland said.

'Rapidly spreading'

A month into the crisis, Strickland said authorities on the ground report the virus still is rapidly spreading in Italy. In Milan, in north-central Italy, Strickland said hospitals are overwhelmed.

"It's not slowing down, and a lot of the hospitals here are having to make life-and-death decisions," she said. "They have to make decisions pretty much on who is going to live and who is going to die. It's pretty much boiled down to that."

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Italy has 3.2 hospital beds per 1,000 population -- slightly more than the 2.8 beds per 1,000 population in the United States.

Strickland said the quarantine has been hard on all involved. But, hopefully, she said, it's helping turn the tide on the outbreak.

"Hopefully, the quarantine will make it better than it has been," she said, "but right now, it doesn't seem to be getting better yet."

'I don't think they're prepared'

Based on her experience in Italy, and looking at people's social media posts in Enid, Strickland said she's worried people aren't taking it seriously, and aren't going to be prepared when it hits.

"I don't think people in the States are comprehending how bad it is," she said. "People on Facebook are saying it's like the flu, and it's going to pass over, or Italy is making too big a deal out of it. They're really not.

"We were told five people had it. Then 100 people had it, and we were quarantined to our house," Strickland said. "I don't think people are prepared for how rapidly it's going to happen.

"It hit us out of the blue, and started with us being out of school," she said. "Before long, it started rolling over into everything else, to where now I'm not even allowed to leave my house. Nobody knew within three weeks we wouldn't even be able to walk around in our neighborhoods."

Be prepared

She recommended parents begin contingency planning now for having their kids home for several weeks, with no child care. Get all your kids' school books, notebooks and materials, and be prepared for online school at home, she advised.

The one regret she has in her preparations is she wishes she'd stocked up on more frozen meat and canned goods. Once a quarantine hits, she said to be prepared for long lines and rationing of certain food items.

"Make sure you have the necessities, because you're going to be cut off from all those necessities," she said.

And, as people are planning, she said they need to plan for the vulnerable around them.

"Don't just think of yourself," she said. "You're going to have single parents who can't get to the store, and older people who aren't safe to go out. And please, please -- wash your hands."

People shouldn't panic, Strickland said. But, they should rely on official sources of information, and be prepared.

"It's hard. I know looking at everyone on Facebook, they don't realize the severity of it," Strickland said. "It may seem minor until it hits where you're at. And then it completely takes over."

©2020 The Times-Tribune (Corbin, Ky.)
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The food court at the Exchange/Commissary mall at Aviano Air Base, Italy, was closed Friday, March 13, 2020, in accordance with Italian decrees targeting the spread of the coronavirus.
KENT HARRIS/STARS AND STRIPES

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