Quarantined Vermonter Peter Italia Shares His Story
Peter James Italia has been posting on Facebook throughout October about the trip he took to Guinea, where he claimed he hoped to “to join in the fight against the spread of the ?#?Ebola virus and to help those who have been stricken.”
At a news conference Tuesday, state officials called into question the 61-year-old's status as a doctor and the exact purpose of his trip to West Africa. Italia says those comments were intended to discredit him. His Facebook posts tell the story of a well-intentioned trip that met numerous logistical challenges due to his lack of official credentials or affiliations with established aid organizations.
Without those credentials or connections, Italia said he was turned away by groups he claims to have contacted, such as Doctors Without Borders and Samaritan’s Purse. Gov. Peter Shumlin, though he refused to identify the quarantined Vermonter at a Tuesday news conference, also said the man was turned away when he attempted to join aid organizations working in West Africa.
Italia’s posts say he stayed at the Riviera Royal hotel near the Guinean capital of Conakry. When a coordinator at a nearby hospital didn’t allow Italia to help at that hospital, he posted that he went on an excursion, illegally crossing the Guinea-Sierra Leone border by bribing a customs official. Once he crossed the border, he tried to travel through several villages.
I explained to the elders that I was an American doctor there to help with the Ebola problem and that I was on my way to Freetown. They demanded that we pay them money for them to let us pass. We refused to give them any money. We were finally allowed to pass. The same thing happened when we got to the next village. Again, I told the people there that I was an American doctor and asked if anyone in the village was sick. Again, we were asked to pay money. Ironically, they also accused us of potentially bringing Ebola into their village from Guinea, when it was clearly the people in their own country, Sierra Leone, that they should have been more worried about. They also accused us of being there for other nefarious reasons, not having anything to do with Ebola. Again, we refused to pay any money. Instead of letting us pass, they called the police.
The day trip ended when Italia was returned to Guinea and told to go back to the capital, he said. Both Vermont officials and Italia’s posts online say he never came into contact with Ebola patients.
Italia’s post reflect a growing frustration with international media outlets and aid agencies that were not responsive to his inquiries.
On Oct. 22, before his planned return to the U.S., Italia’s frustration was clear.
My return flight to JFK is tomorrow night. Maybe I can get out of here without incident. But then my real problems only begin. Rejected and ignored for too long now by society -- as my firsthand reports on the Ebola epidemic here in West Africa having been completely ignored by the news media and everyone else only goes to show once more -- I will be homeless and forced to live on the streets. I think DEATH would be a better alternative than to keep living like this.
Italia’s claim that he is a doctor remains in question. He is not licensed as a medical professional in the state of Vermont, and an Oct. 1 post on his Facebook page partially addresses this:
It simply is not safe for one to travel alone here, especially a foreigner. Yet here I am out of necessity because of the terrible way I have been treated in the US because I did not graduate from a US medical school to the point that I can't find work. Nobody gives a damn about me or all my accumulated knowledge and skills from many years of hard work. Nor the fact that I am a good doctor. What in the hell is wrong with people? Why have I been treated this way?
Italia claims to have surgical knowledge, but his Facebook profile only mentions an education in computer science and accounting at Champlain College. Italia claims he went to medical school in the Dominican Republic, graduating in 1987.
Despite his frustrations, Italia called the trip a success in an interview Thursday.
"I accomplished what needed to be done, and that was to observe and report, and that's exactly what I did and so the information is out there," he said.
Italia’s posts on Facebook also refer to him having difficulty with authorities over his claims that he is a “time traveler.” He mentions a kidnapping case which he claimed to have vital information about because of his ability to time travel:
Of course, the detective wanted to know how I had come by my information. So, the first question he asked me was if I was a psychic. I told him that he could think of me sort of like a psychic if he wished. Our conversation immediately proceeded to go downhill from there. I tried to reassure him, however, that everything I had told him about Smart’s disappearance and where she could be found was absolutely true. I only wanted to help everyone involved. However, the detective only insisted on ridiculing me.
Italia is aware that Vermonters have been questioning his sanity since his identity was revealed Wednesday, but he stands by his actions.
Italia said that his goal was "to investigate this Ebola problem and to report on all the problems and to say that the CDC and WHO have been getting it wrong - so if that's crazy, then fine, that's okay by me," he said.
Italia said he wasn't surprised by the precautions officials have taken since his return, though his version of the events doesn't align with the version put forward by state officials.
Gov. Shumlin said the quarantine is voluntary, but Italia’s posts call that premise into question. Shumlin has also said the he is ready, willing and able to authorize mandatory quarantines if that becomes necessary.
Italia said that he was escorted by Vermont officials back into the state after landing at JFK airport in New York Monday.
“I have since been forced into ‘voluntary’ quarantine for 21 days,” he said. “I am also under 24-hour guard. Otherwise, I have been treated quite well.”
In a VPR interview Thursday, Italia said the "voluntary quarantine," as officials characterized Tuesday, was not so voluntary.
“It’s a forced voluntary – so what it is – I was told here’s the paper that I needed to sign, voluntarily, and if I didn’t do that then they would invoke emergency measures and I could even be imprisoned,” he said.
Vermont acting Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan said Thursday that she believed the form he was presented with made clear the state's authority to mandate a quarantine, but did not say forced quarantine was a certainty if Italia did not consent.
"So absolutely he knew that that was an option that the commissioner could take if he chose not to sign. I don’t believe, and ... I don’t have the form in front of me, that that was an absolute – if you don’t sign it’s definitely involuntary," she said.
Update 3:05 p.m. Oct. 31 The Vermont Department of Health released a copy of the form Italia signed. Click here to view the form.
Italia agreed to sign it. His quarantine is set to end Nov. 17.
A number of news reports and social media users have speculated that Italia is the same person referenced in a New York Times story published Sunday that described a person who posted online about traveling to West Africa with the intention of catching Ebola and returning to the U.S. with the disease:
And the virus has presented at least one unusual challenge for law enforcement agencies, senior American officials said on Sunday. They described how agencies had urgently investigated a man who wrote a bizarre post on social media that he was going to try and contract Ebola in Africa and then return to the United States. According to senior American officials, the man traveled to the West African country of Guinea in the past month in the hopes of working alongside humanitarian assistance organizations treating patients. The organizations quickly determined that the man had no medical expertise and was acting strangely, and they turned him away.
State and federal officials have declined to comment on whether the person mentioned in that story is Italia, but no posts on his Facebook profile indicate the intention to catch the disease.
In an interview Thursday, Italia sought to set the record straight.
"Everything I have done," he said, "has always been in the best interest for everybody."