‘Learn from Italy’s mistakes’, health expert warns Europe

As Italy gets to grips with life under quarantine, leading public health expert Nino Cartabellotta says such "drastic" measures are the only hope of stopping the spread in Italy, and elsewhere.

'Learn from Italy's mistakes', health expert warns Europe
Staff bring emergency supplies to a hospital in Lombardy, the Italian region worst hit by the coronavirus crisis. Photo: AFP

After the Italian government this week announced unprecedented nationwide travel restrictions and the closure of most shops and businesses in an effort to control the deadly coronavirus outbreak, the country of 60 million people had to adapt quickly to huge changes.

Until April 3, there are to be no social gatherings, no unnecessary trips, no weddings, no funerals, no sitting in cafes, no gym visits, and no school – and as of Thursday, no leaving the house unless necessary.

READ ALSO: Stay at home‘: Italy’s new coronavirus quarantine rules explained

Restrictions were initially imposed in the north of the country over the weekend, before being extended nationwide.

It’s a big adjustment, and many people looking on from outside the country are asking if such strict measures are really necessary – and if their own countries should do the same.

An Italian police officer checks the papers of people passing through a checkpoint on Wednesday. Photo: AFP

Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gruppo Italiano per la Medicina Basata sulle Evidenze (GIMBE), Italy’s foundation for evidence-based medicine, called the measures “drastic”, but said he welcomed the government’s decision to extend them across Italy – something his research institute has been calling for since the beginning of the outbreak in the country at the end of February.

This is the only way we can effectively tackle the spread of the virus”, he said.

In the absence of a vaccine or targeted drugs, social distancing measures are the only weapon at our disposition to counter the epidemic.”

They are in line with the recent scientific evidence from the GIMBE Foundation, based on a systematic review published in the journal of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

His organisation has been gathering data on the coronavirus outbreak since it began in China, and is part of a taskforce recently set up to advise Italy’s Ministry of Health.

Data analysis by GIMBE appears to show that the mortality rate in Italy (at 6.6 percent on Wednesday) is higher than that in China, though Cartabellotta explains this rough figure is “undoubtedly overestimated” at the moment as “we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg”.

He calculates that with further testing the figure will eventually be found to be closer to 2.2 percent, in line with the rate in China.

The figure also shows huge regional variations within Italy itself; the mortality rate in Lombardy, the Italian region worst hit by the outbreak, is far higher than in any other part of Italy.

Yesterday the death rate among patients in Lombardy was 8.2 percent, compared to an average of 3.2 percent across all other parts of Italy.

Lombardy is our Wuhan and the situation worsens day by day,” Cartabellotta said, adding that 75 percent of all Italy’s coronavirus deaths were reported in this one region.

The dizzying increase in the number of deaths there is an alarming sign that the epidemic is bringing one of Italy’s best health services to its knees.”

Nino Cartabellotta, professor and president of the Gruppo Italiano per la Medicina Basata sulle Evidenze. Photo. GIMBE Press Office

This, he explains, is why the government’s containment measures are so vital.

The virus knows no borders,” he continued, “And the central and southern regions, already struggling to guarantee essential levels of medical assistance, will not be able to withstand a tsunami like the one that hit Lombardy. We’re risking a real disaster.”

It’s essential that everyone strictly respects the social distancing measures,” he stressed.

‘Social distancing’ measures include the isolation of the sick, quarantine of those exposed to the virus, tracing contacts, school closures, and prohibition of gatherings – all of which Italy is doing.

READ ALSO: Hospitals are overwhelmed‘: Italian doctors describe their struggle to treat Lombardy’s coronavirus patients

In fact, these measures, by reducing the transmission of the virus, delay the peak of the epidemic, and distribute the cases over a longer period of time, which allows the health system to prepare properly and better manage symptomatic cases,” he explained.

Should other countries now be following Italy’s lead?

Absolutely, yes,” Cartabellotta said.

The data shows that the majority of European countries are about to face a battle identical to the Italian one. The surge in cases in France, Germany and Spain follows the same trend as in Italy. It’s just 7-8 days behind.”

The more promptly containment measures are implemented, the more effective they are,” he added. “Considering this, it’s necessary to act immediately, because tomorrow will already be late.”

“Other European countries should learn from Italy’s experience – and mistakes.”

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Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”