How is our healthcare system dealing with coronavirus?
“We are suspending all flights from and to China. We are the first country in Europe to adopt such a precautionary measure.” It was January 3 when the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte made the announcement during a special press conference. Today, his words sound like they belong to another lifetime ago. The decision came after the first two cases of the new coronavirus were confirmed in Rome, and a Chinese couple traveling from Wuhan was hospitalized at Spallanzani hospital.
Nobody knew that hell had just been unleashed back then. Within the next few weeks, several areas of the country would find themselves locked up in quarantine, spreading an unstoppable vortex of psychosis.
First things first: let’s have a look at the facts. At the time I’m writing, official sources affirm that the confirmed cases of coronavirus in our country are about 400. This amount makes us the third country by number of infections, after China (about 77,000 cases) and South Korea (890 cases). Up to now, most of the infections are located in the northern regions of the peninsula, with the two hotbeds around Lodi (Lombardy) and Vo’ Euganeo, a small town in Veneto.
The virus caused 12 deaths. They’re all adults over 65, who already had a compromised clinical situation: many were already hospitalized due to other illnesses, including tumors. The coronavirus certainly played a part in the worsening of their conditions, but it’s unlikely that it was the primary reason for the demise.
In fact, the Chinese Centre for Diseases Control created a chart stating that the virus’ mortality rate increases as the age goes up, ranging from 0.2% for people from 0 to 2 years old to 14.8% for those older than 80. For what concerns the patients’ clinical picture, the death rate is 0.9% for people with no pre-existing conditions, and it peaks at 10.5% for those already affected by cardiovascular diseases.
The first Italian citizen to be diagnosed with coronavirus is a 38-years-old man from Codogno, Lodi. A few days later, on February 21, newspapers confirmed the death of the first Italian victim in the region of Veneto.
Then, it’s been panic.
In recent frenzy meetings, the government decided to lock up ten municipalities around Codogno, checking traffic in and out the borders in order to try to limit contagion. As the virus kept spreading, reaching neuralgic cities like Milan and Turin, local authorities decided to stop all school activities for a week, ban public events and close meeting places such as museums, theaters, malls, and cinemas. In Milan, pubs and cafes have also been closed from 6 pm to 6 am. The goal? Encouraging people to stay at home, attempting to contain the coronavirus epidemic.
All these measures though — taken on “a precautionary basis” as all politicians keep reminding — ended up fostering fears, accomplice the unrestrained sensationalism generated by all the national and local news media. Journalists raced to get the most clickable headline or to announce the umpteenth contagion, and went as far in dramatizing the scale of the quarantine as to compare Milan to “the new Wuhan.” The quote has been attributed to Lombardy’s governor Attilio Fontana, even though, to be fair, he never said himself those words. But, after all, who cares? The wave of alarmism resulted in crazy scenes, with people pillaging supermarkets in order to “stock up” and be prepared in the event of an unspecified national quarantine, or some form of improbable shortage.
The healthcare system was put to the test. People with a seasonal cold ran to the emergency rooms suddenly fearing the worst, and the national phone number for emergencies, 112, was so overloaded with calls that people who really needed it had to wait more than ten minutes to get on the line and ask for an ambulance.
But actually, if for a moment we leave aside the sensationalist headlines and the general feeling of tragedy that runs through the media, the Italian healthcare system is proving to be up to the challenge.
On February 2, not even 48 hours after the first two cases were confirmed in Rome, a team of virologists from the Spallanzani hospital isolated the new virus’ sequence, a task no one had succeeded in up to that moment. The sequence was immediately put at the disposal of the international community, with the goal of releasing as soon as possible an effective vaccine.
Following the flood of phone calls on emergency lines, the government activated a series of regional toll-free phone numbers to contact in case of emergency or to have specific information about the virus. Moreover, it’s impossible not to mention the work of ER volunteers and the extenuating shifts endured by doctors and nurses, most of all in the so-called “red areas” located in the northern regions of Italy.
Today, in the middle of the health emergency, the debate is focused on the intensive care units of Italian hospitals. The most serious patients affected by Covid-19, in fact, have to be treated in very short times with specific procedures and types of equipment and, of course, they must be isolated from other patients even though they may need similar kinds of treatments.
After the spread of the first cases of contagion, the main hospitals in Lombardy and Veneto mobilized to create isolated units for Covid-19 patients. This, however, takes away time, equipment and energies from the other patients who present all kinds of illnesses and conditions.
A major problem is also represented by the scarcity of tampons, considered the quickest and safest way to detect people affected by the virus. After “Patient 1” was diagnosed, hospitals started testing even asymptomatic people, just to “make sure” they were not infected. Interviewed by RAI relevision host Fabio Fazio, the mayor of Bertonico, a small town in the vicinity of the virus’ outbreak area, revealed that he was sick, but the hospital sent him back “because they run out of tampons.” The news quickly spread on the media, always alert for this kind of dramatic statements, but Lombardy’s Health Assessor Giulio Gallera claimed that “although tampons are becoming scarcer, they are still available.”
Furthermore, before the crisis began, the medical staff didn’t pay much attention to the possibility of dealing with coronavirus and, when moving around the different units to visit patients, they didn’t (of course) adopt special measures to contain the virus. After the first cases were diagnosed, extraordinary protocols were implemented in order to protect both the staff and the patients. But it probably was too late.
For sure there have been some faults. But considering the psychosis that sucked in a large part of the Italian population, and the role of media in fostering useless alarmism, the disease management could have been worse. Much worse.
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