Italy faces third wave of COVID-19 after difficult year

Italy is bracing for a third wave of the coronavirus more than one year after first going into lockdown as an early hotspot of the pandemic. CBS News foreign correspondent Chris Livesay joins CBSN's Tanya Rivero from Rome with more about how the nation has changed its approach to battling COVID-19 over the past year.

Video Transcript

TANYA RIVERO: More than one year after first going into lockdown because of the pandemic, Italy is bracing for a third wave of the coronavirus. The country is reporting more than 3.1 million infections. More than 101,000 people have died from the virus since the pandemic began. Public health officials say they are concerned about the highly contagious COVID-19 variant first found in the UK. They say that variant accounts for more than 50% of new infections in Italy.

CBS News foreign correspondent Chris Livesay joins me now from Rome. Hi Chris. So how are things looking in Italy today? Can you elaborate on the current state of the pandemic there?

CHRIS LIVESAY: Well Tanya, they're not looking good. I mean, to sum it all up, I feel like the mask I'm wearing really says it all. This is the law, as it has been ever since the second wave really started to take off this past fall. And it came down a little bit right after Christmas, but it's going right back up again in the wrong direction. Italy heading into a third wave and as a result, the government has decided to lock down more than half the country, at least in terms of population.

So cities like Rome, in the center of Italy, all the way up to Milan in the north. And in the south you've got Naples. They'll all be locked down starting Monday, going all the way up until Easter weekend because it's just not looking very good for the country right now. The vaccination is taking a long time to roll out and Italians are just exasperated.

As you mentioned in the introduction, a year later, more than 100,000 people dead. Italians who were hit first and worst in Italy-- sorry, in Europe, definitely compared to the United States where it took several weeks for the pandemic to reach the same level that it reached here in Italy. They're just very, very tired now and they're asking well, what more do we have to go through?

TANYA RIVERO: Right. I mean, we all remember when Italy was, at one time, the epicenter for the virus. So take us back to last March there. Just how bad were things, and why has Italy struggled so much more than other European countries to really get this virus under control?

CHRIS LIVESAY: So Italy was the very first country in the world to lock down nationwide. Everywhere in the country was locked down. You couldn't go outside unless you had an emergency. Stores were locked down. I mean, we're all sort of familiar with what lockdown means, but it varies from country to country, doesn't it? And I can say that as having had the privilege of being able to travel around a little bit over the past year. And I can tell you that the lockdown in Italy was very extreme. You had streets that were just completely abandoned, you know. There's footage today that I look back on that's just still quite stunning to see. The streets of Rome, just totally empty. The streets of Milan, totally empty.

Now at the beginning, Italians were rallying together in support. Every day at around 6 o'clock, they would come out to their balconies or come to their windowsills and sing together, the national anthem or other popular songs. And this went on for weeks. But as the pandemic wore on for weeks and then months, this show of solidarity just slowly dissipated. And this carried on until today, unfortunately.

We had a lull in the summertime when it seemed like the pandemic was waning. But with that, people also started to drop their guard. Social distancing went by the wayside and people went back to their old habits. I mean, this is a very affectionate culture. Italians are fond of kissing each other when they greet each other. That said, Italy has been remarkably obedient when it comes to lockdown rules.

I was just in Germany last week, where they've also had a lockdown. But it's very common to see people there walking around without masks. And in fact, the vast majority of Germans who I saw in the street weren't wearing masks. In Italy right now that's just unheard of. Frankly, you could get stopped by the police and told to put your mask on. But I've never seen that because Italians have been so compliant and so-- given all of this effort, which is very uncharacteristic on the parts of Italian who are kind of proud of being scofflaws oftentimes. Italians are just wondering, well, what they're getting in return for this investment. It's very, very discouraging.

As I mentioned, the vaccination rollout has been very slow going here. Hopefully things will turn around once that picks up.

TANYA RIVERO: So I guess, you know, it still begs the question, what went wrong? It sounds like Italians are following the rules. Like you said, there was a little bit of a loosening up, but so how is Italy battling the virus today? How have officials changed their approach over the last year since, like you said, it seemed like they were doing everything right?

CHRIS LIVESAY: Well, right now they're playing catch-up. So they're trying to combat the latest surge of the virus by locking down regions. So you have the northern Lombardy region around Milan that's locking down. Pretty much all of northern Italy, which is the most populous, the most industrious, part of the country. They're all locking down which, by the way, is going to have an enormous impact on the economy, which is suffering its worst recession since World War II.

And on top of that, the government is saying that it's going to accelerate the rollout of the vaccination process, which has suffered a number of delays as it has elsewhere in Europe. And on top of that, you've had some people here actually being a little nervous about one of the vaccines that is most prominent-- the so-called Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

This week, several people in southern Italy actually died after taking the AstraZeneca vaccine. Now there has been absolutely no proof whatsoever that the vaccine caused those deaths, but it certainly scared a lot of people. In fact, the country has banned issuing any more vaccines from that batch as a precaution. Nevertheless, it certainly scared a lot of people, which is the last thing you want to have happen during a vaccination campaign.

There are other vaccines that are available here in Italy and the country is doing everything it possibly can to roll them out quicker. They're doing what they've already been doing in the United States, which is opening up vaccination centers in places like parking lots at the airport, even at stores. That hasn't been very common in Italy, but they've seen how effective it has been in the United States. So they're going to start implementing that here too.

TANYA RIVERO: All right. Well, we wish the Italians all the best of luck in fighting this virus that we're all up against. Chris Livesay in Rome, thank you so much for joining us.