Hunkered down in Italy with her 2-year-old son, Jordan Grass has seen the best and the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Eau Claire native, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Aviano Air Base, is living under a nationwide lockdown ordered in a desperate attempt to slow COVID-19’s death march across the country.
“This thing terrifies me and I’m a healthy, active, young person,” said Grass, whose husband, Tye, is on temporary duty in an undisclosed location and unable to rejoin his family until at least mid-May. “There are just too many unknowns about this disease.”
Italy has become the worldwide epicenter of the pandemic, surpassing China on Thursday for the largest number of coronavirus-related deaths and leaving hospitals and morgues increasingly overwhelmed. As of Friday, Italy had reported 4,032 deaths from COVID-19, more than a third of the worldwide total, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
For Grass, 24, the grim statistics mean she is staying home with her son almost all of the time other than the three days a week she goes to her job as a resource adviser at the base. The 2013 graduate of Eau Claire North High School lives in a stand-alone house in Pordenone, about 40 miles north of Venice in northeast Italy.
“Thankfully, we have a wonderful Italian nanny who despite the circumstances is willing to watch our son, Theo, while I’m at work,” Grass said in an email interview.
She is taking pains to avoid exposing her son, the nanny and the nanny’s 80-year-old mother to the virus.
Grass does all of her grocery shopping on the base, where only one person has tested positive for COVID-19 so far although more than 100 reportedly have been self-quarantined, and hasn’t entered an Italian civilian shop of any kind for three weeks.
“Almost all the cars I pass on my way to work have people wearing masks and the majority of people in the stores have gloves on,” she said. “It’s almost like the new norm.”
Her local news is filled with information about ever-tightening restrictions for residents. Police are driving around scenic Italian cities and villages ordering people to stay inside via loudspeakers. People are only allowed to leave their homes for work, medical needs and necessities such as groceries and prescriptions.
“Anytime you’re outside your home you have to carry a declaration paper created by the Italian government stating that you have not tested positive for COVID-19, that you aren’t under quarantine and why specifically you are leaving your home,” Grass said. “And if they don’t think your reason is valid, they are allowed to fine you.”
Stores, meanwhile, are limiting the number of people inside so they can maintain the required social distancing. Others remain outside lined up with the appropriate space between them.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking being here now,” Grass said. “The thought of not being able to leave or go home to the States gives you a sense of helplessness.”
With Secretary of Defense Mark Esper’s recent “stop movement” order preventing her husband from returning home until at least May 11, Grass communicates daily with Tye as well as both of her parents in Eau Claire.
Grass’s mom, Kelly Olson, said it is extremely stressful knowing that her daughter and grandson are living in a global COVID-19 hot spot.
“I think about it all the time. It’s so scary with them so far away,” Olson said, labeling Italy’s death toll “terrifying.”
The scene is starkly different from the serene memories Olson has of visiting Grass in August, when they spent time visiting many of Italy’s famous tourist destinations.
All Olson can do now is continue to send care packages filled with toys, puzzles, sidewalk chalk and craft items to help keep Theo entertained as the lockdown drags on.
When the outbreak first started to get bad in Italy, Olson offered to bring Theo back to Eau Claire, but Grass didn’t want to be separated from her son.
“And now it doesn’t look like it will be any different here anyway,” Olson said ruefully.
As for Theo, he is holding up well so far, Grass said, thanks to plenty of attention from mom and access to a yard where he can play.
Singing from balconies
Throughout the national emergency, Grass, who loves the people and culture of Italy, has been buoyed by the sight of Italians coming together to keep a positive outlook despite the unprecedented and frightening situation.
“They are singing from balconies all over the country to try and keep in good spirits during this dark time,” she said.
Another prominent example of the Italians’ we-shall-overcome attitude, she said, is that people across the country are making and displaying signs with rainbows and the phrase “Andra Tutto Bene,” which means everything will be fine.
By contrast, Grass has been dismayed to see news accounts of some Americans not taking the COVID-19 threat seriously, especially with some experts suggesting that the United States is potentially only about two weeks behind Italy in the progression of the virus.
“People in the States may be taking this lightly, but being right in the middle of it is actually pretty scary,” she posted recently on Facebook. “Every day things get worse.”
Grass wrote that post March 12, just three weeks after the country reported its first coronavirus-related death. Italy, which is about the size of Arizona, grieved more than 2,000 deaths in the ensuing week, according to the Washington Post. The Johns Hopkins center reported that Italy had 47,021 cases of the virus, including 4,440 people who had recovered, as of Friday.
Aviano Air Base officials keep all of the personnel stationed there informed of the latest developments related to the disease’s progression through an app and by hosting virtual town halls on Facebook Live.
For people back in the Chippewa Valley, where the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Eau Claire, Chippewa and Dunn counties were announced by health officials on Thursday, Grass’s warning can be summed up in two words: Stay home.
Heeding authorities’ instructions to practice social distancing is about being considerate of others, especially older people and those with underlying health conditions who are at higher risk of death or serious complications from the virus, said Grass, who fears the crackdown on movement was put in place too slowly in Italy.
“If people would practice social distancing and stay home, it would be easier to contain, therefore interrupting their lives for a shorter amount of time,” she said.
Much to her regret, Grass speaks from experience.