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Coronavirus: Italy Travel Restrictions


We're going to begin the program with today's major story - the global health challenge of coronavirus. More than 100,000 people around the world have been diagnosed with the illness COVID-19. NPR science correspondent Joe Palca has been following this story, and he is with us now.

Joe, thanks so much for joining us.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Oh, you're welcome.

MARTIN: So it seems like the big development today is out of Italy. What can you tell us about the situation there?

PALCA: Well, that's correct. The virus has been spreading around the world. And, of course, it started in China and is still causing lots of problems there, although things seem to be getting better. And in South Korea, there's all sorts of problems. But the numbers in Italy are quite stunning. Today, the case report was 6,400. But that's up 1,300 cases from yesterday.

So the government has decided to take some pretty drastic steps. They're going to try to stop all travel in and out of the area that most of the cases are, which is the north of the country. And from tomorrow, Alitalia, the carrier for Italy, is going to suspend all flights in and out of Milan. They think 16 million people might be affected by this travel restrictions.

MARTIN: And, Joe, what about in the affected region there? What steps are authorities taking there? How are people reacting to all this?

PALCA: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that we're learning from this is that this kind of explosive increase in cases is going to put a huge strain on existing resources. The emergency rooms and intensive care units that are in the area appear to be overwhelmed by this great influx of new patients.

MARTIN: And what about the situation aboard that cruise ship that was stuck off the coast of California because 21 people onboard had tested positive for coronavirus?

PALCA: Yes. Well, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced this morning that the cruise ship would be allowed to dock in some place in San Francisco Bay, apparently, that's in Oakland in a non-passenger port. And then the California residents onboard will be taken to military bases in California, and the residents of other states will be going to bases in Georgia and Texas. And in both cases, they'll be - in all cases, they'll be undergoing testing and quarantine.

And interestingly enough, speaking of cruise ships, federal health official Anthony Fauci had some very specific advice for people in poor health, especially the elderly in poor health, about what to avoid.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Crowds, getting on a plane, on a long plane trip. And above all, don't get on a cruise ship.

PALCA: That was Fauci speaking with Chris Wallace on "Fox News Sunday."

MARTIN: So could you just take a step back for a minute and give us the state of play in the U.S.? I mean, do we know where that outbreak is heading?

PALCA: Well, yes and no. There have been difficulties predicting exactly where things are going because the testing that would be needed to tell us exactly where things are going hasn't been available so far. But that logjam seems to be breaking. Federal health officials were at great pains to say that there do appear to be enough tests coming online in the coming few days to be able to get a better picture of what the situation in this country looks like.

And it's not going to look pretty right to begin with because the extended number of tests are going to reveal a lot more cases. Now, how bad it's going to be is something I think everybody is a little bit, you know, crossing their fingers and waiting to see. But in the meantime, it's very important that people do carry out all the procedures that you need to do to prevent the spread. And, of course, they'll be hoping that drastic measures won't be needed in this country.

MARTIN: That is NPR science correspondent Joe Palca.

Joe, thank you so much.

PALCA: You're most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.