‘Unacceptable strategy’: Italian health experts warn about Delta variant as vaccine progress slows

Italy’s independent health watchdog has slammed the government’s “wait-and-see strategy” on managing the spread of the Delta coronavirus variant, which is now thought to account for up to 32% percent of new cases in the country.

‘Unacceptable strategy’: Italian health experts warn about Delta variant as vaccine progress slows
Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The new report released on Thursday by the GIMBE Foundation, Italy’s group for evidence-based medicine, said the country urgently needs to increase coronavirus screening and contact tracing, as well as analysis and sequencing of data on new strains.

It also sounded the alarm over a recent drop in the number of vaccinations carried out in Italy, and claimed that the number of new cases in the country was probably underestimated as testing rates had recently fallen.

READ ALSO: Italy approves ‘mix and match’ vaccinations for under-60s as regions issue varying rules on AstraZeneca

The report urged the government to follow recommendations from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), which said this week that the more infectious Delta variant of coronavirus, first identified in India in late 2020, would soon account for 90% of cases within the EU as summer travel helped facilitate the spread.

“A ‘wait-and-see’ strategy on managing the Delta variant is unacceptable,” wrote GIMBE head Dr. Nino Cartabellotta in the new report.

“The measures recommended by the ECDC must be promptly implemented: enhance sequencing and contact tracing, implement screening strategies for those arriving from abroad, and accelerate the administration of the second dose in over 60s,” he said.

This would mean a change in approach to managing the pandemic in Italy, where authorities have so far hoped that the vaccination programme, along with public health measures such as mask-wearing, would be enough to keep new variants in check.

On Twitter, Cartabellotta said: “You can’t control the Covid pandemic only with vaccines, masks and distancing. Today the Delta variant requires tracing and sequencing”.

He added that the government’s approach of “hoping we can manage” had to change.

GIMBE also stated in the report that there was currently an “absence of reliable data on the presence of the Delta variant in Italy.”

Italy’s Health Ministry and Higher Health Institute (ISS) last week estimated that only one percent of cases in the country were caused by either the Delta or Kappa variants.

But independent data analysis found that the Delta strain may actually now account for more than a quarter of Italy’s coronavirus cases.

Coronavirus: How much is the Delta variant spreading in Italy?

Some 26 percent of the country’s new cases can be attributed to Delta, according to an international report by the Financial Times together with data from Belgian research institute Sciensano, based on figures from the virus-variant tracking database Gisaid.

Analysis of the same data set by GIMBE found that the figure had risen to 32% this week.

The report placed Italy fifth in the world for the share of cases driven by the spread of Delta, coming behind the UK, Portugal, Russia and the US.

Amid rising concern about the impact of the variant, which is thought to increase the risk of hospitalisation, Italian health authorities on Monday imposed new travel restrictions on arrivals from the UK – almost a month after other EU countries including France and Germany did the same.

Meanwhile, Italy is easing its own coronavirus restrictions as the infection rate has fallen in recent weeks and months.

The nationwide Rt number, which shows the rate of infection, remained steady this week at 0.69.

While the number of new infections in Italy appears relatively low at the moment, Cartabellotta said this may be an “underestimation”.

“The number of people tested for Sars-Cov-2 has progressively reduced by 52.7%, from 662.549 to 313.122” and with “significant and unjustified regional differences,” he said.

The GIMBE report also found that the number of vaccine doses administered in Italy had dropped over the past week for the first time in months, by -4.5% week-on-week.

At the moment, just over a quarter of the Italian population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, compared to 46% in the United Kingdom.

Cartabellotta described Italy’s percentage as “worrying” considering “the lower effectiveness of a single dose against this variant “.

He pointed out that some 2.5 million people aged over 60 in Italy have not yet received the first dose of a vaccine.

In Italy, 26.5% have had one dose of a vaccine, while 46% are unvaccinated, compared to 17% and 37% respectively in the UK.

As the number of new coronavirus infections in the UK has risen sharply in recent weeks, health authorities attributed the relatively low number of hospitalisations and deaths in the country to its higher rate of vaccination coverage.

In the report cited by GIMBE, ECDC Director Dr. Andrea Ammon warned that “about 30% of individuals older than 80 years and about 40% of individuals older than 60 years have not yet received a full vaccination course in the European Union.”

“Based on available scientific evidence, the Delta variant is more transmissible than other circulating variants and we estimate that by the end of August it will represent 90% of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the European Union,” stated Dr. Ammon.

“Unfortunately, preliminary data shows that it can also infect individuals that have received only one dose of the currently available vaccines.”

“It is very likely that the Delta variant will circulate extensively during the summer, particularly among younger individuals that are not targeted for vaccination.”

“This could cause a risk for the more vulnerable individuals to be infected and experience severe illness and death if they are not fully vaccinated.”

In its latest weekly coronavirus data monitoring report, released on Friday, the ISS confirmed there were “clusters of the Delta variant” in Italy, and warned that this variant was more contagious and had the potential to partially elude vaccines.

The report also called for more sequencing and renewed efforts to increase vaccination coverage in order to prevent the country’s health situation from worsening.

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Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

From ear piercings to flu jabs, Italian ‘farmacie’ are among the most useful stores in the country, but they’re also very odd places. Here are our tips on getting through the pharmacy experience.

Living in Italy: Five tips to help you survive the local pharmacy

Italian pharmacies aren’t just stores selling prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

As a customer, you’ll find all sorts of natural remedies, basic health supplies and personal care items on their shelves. 

You’ll also be able to receive basic medical services (for instance, blood pressure checks, Covid tests and flu jabs) and some non-health-related ones (like getting your ears pierced!) in most branches. 

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I still get the flu vaccine in Italy? 

But, while being extremely useful stores, Italian farmacie (pronunciation available here) are also peculiar places and their set of unwritten rules and solidified traditions may well throw off newcomers.. 

So here are five tips that might help you complete your first expeditions to your local pharmacy without making a fool of yourself.

1 – Decipher your doctor’s scribbles before your trip

Much like some of their foreign colleagues, Italian GPs have a penchant for writing prescriptions that no one else is actually able to read. 

We might never find out why doctors seem so intent on making ancient hieroglyphs fashionable again, but their calligraphic efforts will surely get in the way of you trying to buy whatever medicine you need to survive. 

To avoid hiccups, make sure you know exactly what you need to get. If in doubt, reach out to your GP to confirm.

Don’t rely on pharmacists being able to figure out your doctor’s handwriting because they often have no clue either.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How to make a doctor’s appointment in Italy 

Pharmacy in Codogno, near Milan

In most small towns and rural areas local pharmacies have very ‘thin’ opening hours. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP

2 – Double-check the pharmacy’s opening times

If you’re from the UK or the US, you might be used to pharmacies being open from 8am to 10pm on weekdays and having slightly reduced opening times over the weekend. 

You can forget about that in Italy. In big cities, most pharmacies will shut no later than 8pm on weekdays and will be closed on either Saturdays or Sundays.

READ ALSO: Coughs, colds and flu: What to say and do if you fall sick in Italy 

As for small towns or villages, opening times will have a nice Middle Ages vibe to them, with local stores remaining shut on weekends and keeping their doors open from 9am to 12.30pm and then from 3.30pm to 7.30pm on weekdays. 

So always check your local pharmacy’s hours before leaving home and, should their times not be available online, call them up. An awkward phone conversation with the pharmacist is still preferable to a wasted trip.

3 – Get the ‘numerino

Some Italian pharmacies have a ticket-dispensing machine with the aim of regulating the queue – a concept which is still foreign to many across the country.

All customers are expected to get a numbered paper ticket (the famed ‘numerino’) from the above machine and wait for their number to be called to walk up to the pharmacist’s desk. 

Now, the law of the land categorically prohibits customers from getting within a five-metre radius of the desk without a numerino

Also, trying to break that rule may result in a number of disdainful sideways glances from local customers.

4 – You cannot escape the in-store conversations, so embrace them 

Pharmacies aren’t just stores. They’re a cornerstone of Italian life and locals do a good deal of socialising on the premises. 

After all, the waiting times are often a bit dispiriting, so how can you blame them for killing the time?

Small pharmacy in Italy

Pharmacies are an essential part of Italian life and culture. Photo by Marco SABADIN / AFP

You might think that locals won’t want to talk to you because you’re a foreigner or don’t know the language too well, but you’ll marvel at how chatty some are.

While chit-chat might not be your cup of tea, talking with locals might help you improve your Italian, so it’s worth a shot.

5 – “Vuoi scaricarlo?”

The pharmacist finally gets you what you need and you’re now thinking that your mission is over. Well, not yet.

Before charging you for the items in question, the pharmacist will ask you whether you’d like to ‘scaricarli’ (literally, ‘offload them’) or not, which, no matter how good your Italian is, will not make any sense to you.

What the pharmacist is actually asking you is whether you want to link the purchase to your codice fiscale (tax code). 

READ ALSO: Codice fiscale: How to get your Italian tax code (and why you need one)   

That’s because Italy offers residents a 19-percent discount on some health-related expenses, which can be claimed through one’s annual income declaration (dichiarazione dei redditi) by attaching the receipts of all the eligible payments.

Whether you want to scaricare or not, this is the last obstacle before you can make your way back home.