On March 10 2020, screenshots of a “cry from Italy” attributed to a doctor in Bergamo appeared on several platforms; one iteration on Imgur was viewed more than 100,000 times in just half a day as people searched for reliable information about the spread of a novel coronavirus strain known as COVID-19:
Text in the screenshots matched a similar thread circulating on Twitter. The thread, shared by @ZhouLabUCR in the early hours of March 11 2020, was broken up into 13 tweets:
1/n A letter from Italy, please share: "I am writing to you from Bergamo, Italy, at the heart of the coronavirus crisis. The news media in the US has not captured the severity of what is happening here. I am writing this post because each of you, today,@JoyceLauNews @DrEricDing
— Zhou Lab (@ZhouLabUCR) March 11, 2020
Both posts were verbatim reproductions of a widely-viewed and broadly-shared Facebook post published on March 10 2020:
That post was shared by Cristina Higgins. Higgins’ profile did not display information about whether she lived in the United States or Italy, nor did it provide any contextual information about her line of work.
Higgins’ viral post was shared as an open letter. However, it was further unclear if Higgins herself wrote it or copied it from a different source. It began with a warning “from Bergamo” to Americans and other Europeans:
I am writing to you from Bergamo, Italy, at the heart of the coronavirus crisis. The news media in the US has not captured the severity of what is happening here. I am writing this post because each of you, today, not the government, not the school district, not the mayor, each individual citizen has the chance, today to take actions that will deter the Italian situation from becoming your own country’s reality. The only way to stop this virus is to limit contagion. And the only way to limit contagion is for millions of people to change their behavior today.
If you are in Europe or the US you are weeks away from where we are today in Italy.
Higgins’ post continued by addressing claims COVID-19 was “just a flu” or only affected the elderly or immunocompromised. From there, the post maintained that the novel coronavirus had, in the author’s words, “brought Italy to its knees,” and described the reaction to a national quarantine in the country:
I can hear you now. “It’s just a flu. It only affects old people with preconditions”
There are 2 reasons why Coronavirus has brought Italy to it’s knees. First it is a flu is devastating when people get really sick they need weeks of ICU – and, second, because of how fast and effectively it spreads. There is 2 week incubation period and many who have it never show symptoms.
When Prime Minister Conte announced last night that the entire country, 60 million people, would go on lock down, the line that struck me most was “there is no more time.” Because to be clear, this national lock down, is a hail mary. What he means is that if the numbers of contagion do not start to go down, the system, Italy, will collapse.
Higgins’ post claimed that intensive care units were “at capacity” or “more than capacity” in the Lombardy region, further constrained by the rate of infection among doctors and nurses. After that, the post indicated that “younger patients — 40, 45, 18” were being hospitalized:
Why? Today the ICUs in Lombardy are at capacity – more than capacity. They have begun to put ICU units in the hallways. If the numbers do not go down, the growth rate of contagion tells us that there will be thousands of people who in a matter of a week? two weeks? who will need care. What will happen when there are 100, or a 1000 people who need the hospital and only a few ICU places left?
On [March 9 2020] a doctor wrote in the paper that they have begun to have to decide who lives and who dies when the patients show up in the emergency room, like what is done in war. This will only get worse.
There are a finite number of drs, nurses, medical staff and they are getting the virus. They have also been working non-stop, non-stop for days and days. What happens when the drs, nurses and medical staff are simply not able to care for the patients, when they are not there?
And finally for those who say that this is just something that happens to old people, starting yesterday the hospitals are reporting that younger and younger patients – 40, 45, 18, are coming in for treatment.
Finally, the post urged readers in the rest of Europe and in the United States — and, presumably, beyond — to take measures to prevent being as hard hit as Italy, advising readers to “stay home” if they had “any fever,” and to pressure schools to close:
You have a chance to make a difference and stop the spread in your country. Push for the entire office to work at home today, cancel birthday parties, and other gatherings, stay home as much as you can. If you have a fever, any fever, stay home. Push for school closures, now. Anything you can do to stop the spread, because it is spreading in your communities – there is a two week incubation period – and if you do these things now you can buy your medical system time.
And for those who say it is not possible to close the schools, and do all these other things, locking down Italy was beyond anyone’s imagination a week ago.
Soon you will not have a choice, so do what you can now.
That excerpt claimed that “there is a two week incubation period” for COVID-19 or novel coronavirus; research published on March 10 2020 in the Annals of Internal Medicine cited a similar estimated incubation period for the strain, and noted that information coming out remained in flux:
The median incubation period was estimated to be 5.1 days (95% CI, 4.5 to 5.8 days), and 97.5% of those who develop symptoms will do so within 11.5 days (CI, 8.2 to 15.6 days) of infection. These estimates imply that, under conservative assumptions, 101 out of every 10 000 cases (99th percentile, 482) will develop symptoms after 14 days of active monitoring or quarantine … Publicly reported cases may overrepresent severe cases, the incubation period for which may differ from that of mild cases.
To recap, Cristina Higgins post circulated in at least three places — on Facebook via the original post, on Imgur in screenshots, and transcribed by a user on Twitter. All three posts represented the same original missive of unknown origin. Higgins may have authored the account herself, or it may have been copied from another source. As such, attribution of the item was unclear. Finally, the post was largely anecdotal from the perspective of its unidentified author, and its conclusions did not necessarily reflect information or recommendations from a doctor or public health officials in Bergamo, Italy or elsewhere.