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‘I’m just doing my job’: On call with Italy’s coronavirus doctors treating patients at home

With many coronavirus patients being sent home from Italy's overloaded hospitals, a special medical unit has trained doctors to treat them at home.

'I'm just doing my job': On call with Italy's coronavirus doctors treating patients at home
Medical staff prepare to visit patients at home in the Lombardy region. All photos: AFP

Doctors in protective gear are buzzed into an apartment in northern Italy where an elderly coronavirus patient lies curled up in bed, having been unable to find a place in the overcrowded hospitals.

New special units dubbed USCAs are carrying out home visits in Bergamo, one of the cities worst hit by the epidemic that has so far killed officially more than 13,000 people nationwide, with many more feared to be dying of the virus at home.

READ ALSOFive reasons why the coronavirus hit Italy so hard

Doctor Monica Pagani stoops to attach a pulse oximeter to the patient's finger and test her oxygen levels, as the woman stares up at a picture of the Madonna and child hanging over the bed.

“Is she eating and drinking?” she asks the patient's daughter, gently pulling back the flower-patterned bed cover and raising the woman to a sitting position in order to listen to her lungs and take her blood pressure.

The 32-year old is wearing a protective suit, gloves, mask and glasses, but the risk of catching the virus – and spreading it around – is still very real.

“When we visit the patient, we focus on them and the fear of catching it (from them) passes,” Pagani told AFP, wisps of her curly hair caught in the straps of her mask.

“We try to reassure them. Relatives and patients are always happy to see us,” she said.

An oxygenator stands in the corner of the room, under a white crucifix on the wall.

 

On the wooden chest of drawers, overflowing with framed photographs of loved ones, perches a spray bottle of alcohol-based cleaning fluid.

“These doctors already work in first-aid stations so they have the right kind of experience,” said medical director Roberto Moretti, adding that they were also trained by GPs who had experience in house calls.

Pagani zips up her doctor's bag, ready to head off with her colleague on the next house call.

“I don't feel like a hero, but like a normal person who's just doing her job,” she said.

Italy has recorded 110,574 cases of COVID-19 infection since the outbrak began at the end of February, from which nearly 17,000 have recovered.

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COVID-19 RULES

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

The new Italian government has announced the end of some remaining Covid health measures. Here's a look at what will - and won't - change.

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Few Covid-related restrictions remain in Italy today, six months after the nationwide ‘state of emergency’ ended.

The previous government had kept only a handful of precautionary measures in place – which the new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, must now decide whether or not to keep.

The cabinet is holding a meeting on Monday and will issue a decree this week detailing any changes to the health measures.

Many expect the government to scrap all measures entirely by the end of the year, after Meloni and her party criticised the way Mario Draghi’s administration handled the pandemic throughout its tenure. 

Meloni clearly stated in her first address to parliament last Tuesday that “we will not replicate the model of the previous government” when it comes to managing Covid.

READ ALSO: Five key points from Meloni’s first speech as new Italian PM

While she acknowledged that Italy could be hit by another Covid wave, or another pandemic, she did not say how her government would deal with it.

Meanwhile, new health minister Orazio Schillaci issued a statement on Friday confirming the end of several existing measures, saying he “considers it appropriate to initiate a progressive return to normality in activities and behaviour”.

Workplace ban for unvaccinated medical staff

Schillaci confirmed that the ministry will allow doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work after being suspended because they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

They will be allowed to return “in light of the worrying shortage of medical and health personnel” and “considering the trend of Covid infections”, the statement said.

Fines issued to healthcare staff aged over 50 who refused vaccination would also be cancelled, it added.

There were some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Daily Covid data reports

Schillaci also confirmed in the statement that the health ministry will no longer release daily updates on Covid-19 contagion rates, hospital cases and deaths, saying this would be replaced by a weekly update.

It said it would however make the data available at any time to relevant authorities.

Mask requirement in hospitals to stay?

The requirement to wear face masks in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare facilities expires on Monday, October 31st.

At a meeting on the same day the government is expected to decide whether to extend the measure.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Italy’s new government?

While the government had looked at scrapping the requirement, it reportedly changed stance at the last minute on Monday after facing heavy criticism from health experts.

Media reports published while the meeting was in progress on Monday said government sources had indicated the measure would in fact be extended.

Confirmation is expected to come later on Monday.

Italy’s face mask rules in care homes and healthcare facilities are up for renewal. Photo by Thierry ZOCCOLAN / AFP

‘Green pass’ health certificate

There is no indication that the new government plans to bring back any requirements to show a ‘green pass’: the digital certificate proving vaccination against or recent recovery from Covid, or a negative test result.

The pass is currently only required for entry to healthcare facilities and care homes, and this is expected to remain the case.

‘Dismantling the measures’

Some of the confirmed changes were strongly criticised by Italy’s most prominent healthcare experts.

Head of the Gimbe association for evidence-based medicine, Nino Cartabellotta, said the focus on cancelling fines for unvaccinated healthcare workers was “irrelevant from a health point of view .. but unscientific and highly diseducative”.

He told news agency Ansa it was “absolutely legitimate” for a new government to discontinue the previous administration’s measures, but that this “must also be used to improve everything that the previous government was unable to do”.

The government should prioritise “more analytical collection of data on hospitalised patients, investments in ventilation systems for enclosed rooms … accelerating coverage with vaccine boosters,” he said.

However, the plan at the moment appeared to be “a mere dismantling of the measures in place,” he said, “in the illusory attempt to consign the pandemic to oblivion, ignoring the recommendations of the international public health authorities”.

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