Covid-19: Italy’s mortality rate doubled during worst month of pandemic, study shows

Italy's mortality rate was double that of previous years in March, the worst month of its Covid-19 pandemic, a new report says, showing how badly undercounted initial estimates of the deadliness of the disease may have been.

Covid-19: Italy's mortality rate doubled during worst month of pandemic, study shows
A hospital in the Italian region f Lombardy, which has been hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP
Scientific experts and even the Italian health authorities themselves have said since April that the country's official death toll was likely to be underestimated.
Italy was not the only country to have failed to fully account for deaths linked to the coronavirus. 
Other studies showed that the United States, Peru and Mexico City were among those which largely under-reported the number of people who died from the disease.
In New York, for example, the number of deaths tripled last spring but 22 percent of excess deaths had not been officially reported as coronavirus cases, due to a lack of testing.
To calculate the real toll of the pandemic, demographers and other researchers used not only the number of cases confirmed by tests but also looked at official mortality statistics, based on death certificates, and compared them to previous years, a method often used in researching flu
The results published Monday in the US medical journal “Jama Internal Medicine” showed the devastating toll of the virus in Italy, the first country to bear the full brunt of the pandemic in Europe.
Some Italian hospitals were overwhelmed by the number of Covid-19 cases being admitted in March 2020. Photo: AFP
On April 4th, Italy said it had officially recorded just over 15,000 deaths from Covid-19. 
Between March 1st and April 4th, a total of 41,329 people died in Italy, officials figures show – roughly 20,000 more than in the five preceding years.
That marked an increased mortality of 104.5 percent and suggested there were more than 5,000
deaths missing from the toll attributed to the coronavirus.
The only deaths officially ascribed to Covid-19 at the time were recorded at hospitals and, to a lesser extent, in nursing homes, which would explain the shortfall in the tally.
In Lombardy, the worst-hit region, excess deaths reach 173 percent compared to previous years, a rate which rose to 213 percent among men in the region.
With generalized testing, it becomes easier to count deaths linked to the epidemic in real time.
That is what has since happened in New York, where the gap between the official and the real death tolls has all but disappeared.
Experts in Italy and elsewhere have long said that as testing increases the Covid-19 fatality rate would become more accurate.

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Italy’s deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Opposition leaders called for health undersecretary Marcello Gemmato to resign on Tuesday after the official said he was not "for or against" vaccines.

Italy's deputy health minister under fire for questioning Covid vaccines

Gemmato, a trained pharmacist and member of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, made the remark during an appearance on the political talkshow ReStart on Rai 2 on Monday evening.

READ ALSO: Covid vaccines halved Italy’s death toll, study finds

In a widely-shared clip, the official criticises the previous government’s approach to the Covid pandemic, claiming that for a large part of the crisis Italy had the highest death rate and third highest ‘lethality’ rate (the proportion of Covid patients who died of the disease).

When journalist Aldo Cazzullo interjects to ask whether the toll would have been higher without vaccines, Gemmato responds: “that’s what you say,” and claimed: “We do not have the reverse burden of proof.”

The undersecretary goes on to say that he won’t “fall into the trap of taking a side for or against vaccines”.

After Gemmato’s comments, the president of Italy’s National Federation of Medical Guilds, Filippo Anelli, stressed that official figures showed the Italian vaccination campaign had already prevented some 150,000 deaths, slashing the country’s potential death toll by almost half.

Vaccines also prevented eight million cases of Covid-19, over 500,000 hospitalisations, and more than 55,000 admissions to intensive care, according to a report from Italy’s national health institute (ISS) in April 2021.

Gemmato’s comments provoked calls for him to step down, including from the head of the centre-left Democratic Party, Enrico Letta.

“A health undersecretary who doesn’t take his distance from no-vaxxers is certainly in the wrong job” wrote the leader of the centrist party Action, Carlo Calenda, on Twitter.

Infectious disease expert Matteo Bassetti of Genoa’s San Martino clinic also expressed shock.

“How is it possible to say that there is no scientific proof that vaccines have helped save the lives of millions of people? You just have to read the scientific literature,” Bassetti tweeted. 

In response to the backlash, Gemmato on Tuesday put out a statement saying he believes “vaccines are precious weapons against Covid” and claiming that his words were taken out of context and misused against him.

The Brothers of Italy party was harshly critical of the previous government’s approach to handling the Covid crisis, accusing the former government of using the pandemic as an excuse to “limit freedom” through its use of the ‘green pass’, a proof of vaccination required to access public spaces. 

But since coming into power, Meloni appears to have significantly softened her stance.

Her appointee for health minister, Orazio Schillaci, is a medical doctor who formed part of the team advising the Draghi administration on its handling of the pandemic.

Schillaci, a former dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery at Rome’s Tor Vergata University, has described the former government’s green pass scheme as an “indispensable tool for guaranteeing safety in university classrooms”.

Speaking at a session of the G20 on Tuesday, Meloni referenced the role of vaccines in bringing an end to the Covid pandemic.

“Thanks to the extraordinary work of health personnel, vaccines, prevention, and the accountability of citizens, life has gradually returned to normal,’ the prime minister said in a speech.