‘Like biological bombs’: Italy’s doctors warn against virus patients being sent to care homes

Italian doctors and unions have warned that a government policy to send patients discharged from hospital but still positive for coronavirus to care homes is like priming "biological bombs".

'Like biological bombs': Italy's doctors warn against virus patients being sent to care homes
An ambulance leaves a temporary hospital set up to treat coronavirus patients outside Rome. Photo: AFP

With over 28,000 people in hospita,  including more than 4,000 in intensive care, beds need to be freed up as soon as possible, and those unable to convalesce in isolation at home are being moved to care homes or requisitioned hotels.

The virus has already infiltrated assisted living facilities across the nation, in what is being dubbed the “silent massacre”.

READ ALSO: Five reasons why the coronavirus hit Italy so hard

Hundreds of people in care homes are feared to have succumbed to the disease – over 600 in the hard-hit Bergamo area alone – though firm data are impossible to find, with many victims reportedly going untested, experts say.

They have voiced serious concerns over the safety of the 300,000 or so residents in Italy's 7,000 care homes.

Health workers help a patient out of an ambulance. Photo: AFP

“In a war like this, we can't expose ourselves to the danger of a recurrence of new outbreaks that risk turning care homes into 'biological bombs' that spread the virus,” Raffaele Antonelli Incalzi, head of Italian geriatric society SIGG, told AFP.

“Widely using care home beds to ease pressure on hospitals… would put the elderly residents at risk, and they are the weakest link in this pandemic,” he said.


'Who's checking?'

Some 2,000 patients have already been transferred to care homes in Lombardy, the epicentre of the crisis, while the Marche region in central Italy and Sicily in the south have begun following suit, said SIGG.

Figures for the numbers of patients involved nationally had not yet been compiled, it said.

Matteo Villa, research fellow at the Italian Institute for Political Studies (ISPI), told the foreign press association on Monday that regional data showed a significant proportion of those discharged from hospital still had the virus.

The government has said strict rules apply to which facilities can be used to ensure no contamination takes place, from physical distancing, to training staff and equipping them with protective gear.

“Who's going to be checking the rules are enforced?” Marco Agazzi, president of the Bergamo branch of the national union of Italian doctors, told AFP.

“There are enormous difficulties in accessing protective gear, and if new recruits cannot be found it will mean taking away essential staff at already overstretched facilities,” he said, describing the government's decision as “extremely perplexing”.

Roberto Bernabei, geriatrics professor at Catholic University in Rome, said regulations at care homes were a “grey zone, because they change from local health authority to local health authority, city to city, region to region”.


READ ALSO: Why the coronavirus quarantine rules aren't always the same around Italy

Italy's national health institute said 86 percent of care homes surveyed reported difficulties getting hold of protective equipment, while 36 percent said they were struggling due to staff off sick.

Worried relatives have been bringing staff homemade masks and non-medical gowns in the hope it will stop them catching the virus and spreading it to loved ones, many of whom are in their 80s and 90s, SIGG said.

Pensioner trade unions have been calling for hotels, student housing or military barracks to be used instead.

A national lockdown imposed three weeks ago appears to be working, with the ISS saying on Tuesday that infections have begun to plateau.

But Villa warned coronavirus recovery times meant the pressure on hospitals would only reduce slowly – and could very well rise again when the punishing lockdown is eased, meaning care home beds would still be in demand.

“It's unrealistic to imagine there won't be any other moments of stress on the health system,” he said.

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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].”