The first person diagnosed with COVID-19 in Italy was a healthy 38-year-old who arrived at his local emergency room in Codogno, south of Milan, with flu-like symptoms. His condition quickly worsened, and doctors had the foresight to test him for the coronavirus. On February 20, his results came back positive. Within days, Codogno and other nearby towns in the region of Lombardy were on lockdown, and within weeks so was the entire country.
Patient One—for privacy reasons, we know just his first name, Mattia—spent weeks on a ventilator before he could breathe on his own again, and was released from the hospital only on March 22. In Italy, Mattia is most often portrayed as a success story, a story of resilience, in a country where more than 21,000 people have died from the coronavirus and some good news is needed. “Mattia teaches us that you can also recover from serious illness,” Raffaele Bruno, the head of infectious diseases at the San Matteo Hospital in Pavia, where Mattia was treated, told me.
But his story is also in some ways unsettling. While Mattia was still in the hospital, his father died of COVID-19, and his wife, nearly eight months pregnant, tested positive as well, though she eventually recovered. Mattia turned out to be a “super-spreader” who infected scores of others, including people in his amateur soccer league, and at the hospital where he was diagnosed. His is a cautionary tale of asymptomatic contagion and the unpreparedness of hospitals. In an audio message after his release, Mattia urged his fellow Italians to stay inside, and said he was lucky to have been treated in the early days of the outbreak, before Lombardy started running low on ventilators. (Officials believe Italy’s Patient Zero, the first person to have brought COVID-19 to the country, is likely a German who traveled to northern Italy around January 25. I use the terms Patient One and Patient Zero cautiously: They’re important concepts in epidemiology, but morally complex—outbreaks have multiple causes, and we don’t want to stigmatize the infected.)