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INTERVIEW: ‘Italy’s reopenings put economic interests ahead of health protection’

Amid concerns that Italy's lockdown restrictions are being lifted too quickly, The Local asked one of Italy's top health experts just how safe the reopenings really are.

In early March, the Italian government imposed a tough national lockdown after Italy became the first western democracy to suffer an outbreak of the novel coronavirus. Rules were strictly enforced in the country, where Covid-19 has now claimed the lives of at least 32,000 people.

Italy then charted a slow and careful route out of the shutdown. But on May 12th, the country changed course. The government announced that restrictions would be rolled back further and faster than previously planned, with restaurants, bars, and most shops allowed to reopen from May 18th.  Tourism is now set to restart, with interregional and some international travel to be allowed as soon as June 3rd.


According to Dr Nino Cartabellotta, a leading Italian public health expert, professor, and president of the Gruppo Italiano per la Medicina Basata sulle Evidenze (GIMBE), Italy's Group for Evidence-based Medicine, government decisions on reopening “have placed the country's economic interests ahead of health protection.”

“From May 18th almost everything has reopened, but without certainty that the curve of contagion won't rise again,” he said in an interview with The Local.

“Our government set dates for reopening ignoring the fact that the effects of previous measures can only be seen after two weeks,” he explained.

Italy's prime minister had announced a staged reopening over a number of weeks under the current “phase two” of lockdown.

The government later pushed these reopening dates forward, and Cartabellotta said that this had been done without being able to see the “impact of loosening lockdown on the contagion curve.”

“The consequences of reopening activities on May 4th can be assessed only starting from May 18th. And those of May 18th will be visible no earlier than June 1st.”

“However, from June 3rd, the date on which we’ll begin to glimpse the impact of the reopening of May 18th on the epidemic curve, the green light for interregional travel and reopening of borders will have allowed the free circulation of infected people throughout the country.”

Dr. Nino Cartabellotta. Photo. GIMBE Press Office


And Cartabellotta says Italy doesn't yet have adequate systems in place for data monitoring, or testing and tracing.

“We're facing phase two with blunt weapons and without any technological and organizational infrastructure,” he said.

He pointed out that the planned launch of the “Immuni” app, intended to help trace infections, has been stalled “due to the many controversies related to data security and privacy.”

There are also issues with many regions' testing and tracing systems, he said.

Italy's system of reporting official data on the coronavirus outbreak is decentralised, with each of the 20 regional authorities required to send their local data to the national health ministry.

“Italian regions, with a few exceptions, have a very limited propensity for testing and tracing: that is, they carry out too few swabs to identify asymptomatic subjects and trace their contacts,” Cartabellotta explained.

“In this context, the new decree of May 16th entrusted  the responsibility for epidemiological monitoring and consequent actions entirely to the region,”

“This means it is in fact up to each region to monitor the epidemiological situation in its own area, to evaluate the adequacy conditions of its own health system and to introduce wider or more restrictive measures on its activities.”

READ ALSO: Why some Italian regions have reopened sooner than others

Italy's requirements for reopening were also less stringent than those at the Chinese epicentre of the outbreak, he explained.

“In Wuhan, to decide to reopen, they waited for the daily percentage increase in new cases to drop to 0.1 percent. In Italy we settled for 0.6 percent, with considerable variability between regions,” he said.

Authorities in Italy's northern regions, where much of the country's economic activity is concentrated, were among the keenest to reopen – but these areas are also at the highest risk.

Cartabellotta explained: “On May 4, the first day of the lockdown loosening, 80 percent of new cases concentrated precisely in the regions where most of the people returned to work: Lombardy, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Liguria.”


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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].”