‘It was hellish’: Visitors slam ‘overcrowding’ at newly reopened Vatican Museums

Tour guides and visitors have accused the Vatican Museums of not following Covid-19 protocols, saying their visits were spoiled by overcrowding at the newly-reopened attraction on Saturday.

'It was hellish': Visitors slam 'overcrowding' at newly reopened Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums reopened this month after an almost three-month closure. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
While just a small number of visitors were able to enjoy the famed museum as it reopened on February 1st, by February 13th there were complaints of overcrowding at the site.
“There was no distancing, no organization, it was pure madness,” tour guide Vincenzo Spina wrote in a letter to the museum's management, which was reported in Italian newspaper La Repubblica after he shared it on social media.
“I led a small group inside the Vatican Museums. What I saw made me feel deeply ashamed,” said Spina. “It felt like a subway platform at rush hour, with families trying to turn back  other visitors yelling 'they kidnapped us'.”

Dozens of Italian visitors took to Tripadvisor to complain about scenes of “chaos” in parts of the museums on Saturday, saying crowding was especially bad in the Raphael Rooms.

One visitor wrote that there was an “absolute lack of compliance with the safety rules relating to Covid” during her visit on Saturday.

“People found themselves at various times in a sort of hellish circle, without the minimum distancing required by the regulations in force.”

Another said: “Lots of groups with guides were stuck in the halls… in this period it is an unacceptable organizational error.”

Museum staff were reportedly unable to control the crowds, and some responded to complants about overcrowding by telling visitors to “blame the 'upper floors'”, La Repubblica reported.

The museum's management had not responded to Spina's letter or media requests for comment on Tuesday, La Repubblica said.

Similar scenes of overcrowding were reported in Italian media last June, when museums reopened following Italy's first coronavirus lockdown.

People queue outside the Vatican Museums in June 2020. Photo: AFP

Italy's museums and art galleries were then closed again in November under renewed restrictions.

Museums are currently allowed to reopen from Monday to Friday in “yellow zone” areas under the country's colour-coded system of coronavirus rules.

The museums within the Vatican State however are allowed to open Monday to Saturday.

At the moment, people can only travel for tourism within their own region in Italy as domestic travel restrictions remain in place.

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Q&A: What you need to know about Italy’s West Nile virus outbreak

As Italy records a surge in cases of West Nile fever, we look at what the disease is and where in the country it's spreading.

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy's West Nile virus outbreak

Mosquitos are unfortunately one downside of summer in Italy. But as well as being a nuisance, they may also pose a health risk in the country – one of the few in Europe to record cases of West Nile virus (WNV)

READ ALSO: Cases of West Nile fever surge in northern Italy

Last week Italy recorded 50 more cases of the mosquito-borne virus, bringing the total number of infections to 144 according to the latest report from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

This marked a 53-percent increase in cases against the previous week, while ten people have died so far.

As the number of infections continues to rise, here are the answers to the most pressing questions about the disease and the outbreak in Italy.

What is it?

The West Nile Virus (WNV) is a single-stranded RNA virus that can cause West Nile fever in humans.

It’s a member of the Flavivirus family together with other endemic viruses such as the Zika and Dengue viruses.

The virus was first identified in 1937 in Uganda’s West Nile district but has since spread to many other parts of the world, to the point that it is now considered indigenous to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. 

Carried by birds, West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.

The West Nile virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes of the Culex species, which infect humans and other mammals through their bite, according to Italy’s health ministry.

There is no evidence that human-to-human transmission is possible.

Where are cases being reported in Italy?

Infections have been largely concentrated in the north of the country, especially in the Veneto region, where six people have now died of the disease. Other deaths were recorded in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.

The city of Padua, which is located in Veneto’s mainland, around 35 kilometres away from the Adriatic coast, is currently regarded as the hotspot of the virus. 

It isn’t yet clear why Veneto has been the worst-hit region so far, but experts fear that its marshy lowlands might be the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

A mosquito of the Culex species viewed under a microscope.

Mosquitoes of the Culex species, a specimen of which is pictured above, are responsible for transmitting the West Nile Virus to humans and other mammals. Photo by Jon CHERRY Getty Images / AFP

How severe is the outbreak in Italy?

West Nile virus is not new to Italy. However, this summer has brought the highest number of cases recorded yet.

National infection levels remain relatively low but the country has by far the largest number of cases in Europe.

According to the most recent report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), dated August 3rd, 94 out of 120 recorded cases were in Italy.

Greece had 23 reported cases. Romania and Slovakia had two and one respectively. 

Italy is the only European country that has reported fatalities.

What are the symptoms?

According to the Italian Higher Health Institute (ISS), around 80 percent of infected people show no symptoms whatsoever.

In symptomatic cases, however, symptoms generally resemble those of a common flu and include fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhoea. 

The infection is usually only dangerous for people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, and the most severe symptoms occur in fewer than one percent of infected people.

In healthy people, the virus is unlikely to cause more than a headache or sore throat, and symptoms generally last only a few days.

According to the data currently available, around one in 150 infected people can show symptoms as serious as partial vision loss, convulsions and paralysis. 

In very rare cases (around 0.1 percent, or one in 1000) the disease can cause brain infections (encephalitis or meningitis) which may eventually be fatal.

Brazilian biologists handle mosquito larvae.

There is currently no vaccine against West Nile disease, though several are being tested. Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP

Is there a cure?

There is no vaccine against West Nile fever. “Currently vaccines are being studied, but for the moment prevention consists mainly in reducing exposure to mosquito bites,” the ISS states.

There is also no specific treatment for the disease caused by the virus.

Patients showing the more serious symptoms are usually admitted to hospital and treated with IV fluids and assisted ventilation.

What should you do to protect yourself?

Seeing as there is currently no vaccine against the virus, the best way to protect oneself is by reducing exposure to mosquitoes as much as possible.

Italian health authorities have listed a number of official recommendations to help residents avoid mosquito bites. These include: 

  • Use repellent
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers when being outdoors and especially during ​​mosquitoes’ peak activity times, i.e. sunrise and sunset
  • Use mosquito nets on your windows or sleep in rooms with air-conditioning and keep the windows closed
  • Make sure there are no pools of stagnant water around your house

See more information about West Nile virus in Italy on the health ministry’s website.