Italy’s health system struggles to cope with “tsunami” of Coronavirus cases

Italy is still battling rapidly growing numbers of Coronavirus cases throughout the country, despite the stringent lockdown measures in place. Current figures put positive cases at 17.666, with 1266 deaths. Italy’s health system is now under extreme pressure, particularly in the hardest hit region of Lombardy, prompting fears for how the poorer regions in the south of the country will cope. 

In just over a month from the first Coronavirus diagnosis in the country, Italy’s hospitals have found themselves overwhelmed by the ever increasing number of Coronavirus patients. Hospitals in the northern region of Lombardy, which has been worst affected by the virus, are struggling to cope. 

Several health workers have described the situation in hospitals as akin to war. Daniele Macchini, a doctor in a hospital in the northern city of Bergamo, posted about his experience on social media. “The war has literally exploded and battles are uninterrupted day and night,” he wrote. “There are no more surgeons, urologists, orthopaedists — we are only doctors who suddenly become part of a single team to face this tsunami that has overwhelmed us.”

This wartime mentality is also apparent in the routine surgeries that have been cancelled and the use of any space available to cater for the influx of patients. Bed are having to be set up in corridors and in makeshift emergency units in hospital grounds. Giulio Gallera, Lombardy’s health chief, spoke on Italy’s La7 channel about the possibility of using Milan’s expo centre to cater for 500 more patients needing intensive care. 

Photos are now circulating social media showing exhausted medical workers. One, in particular, has provoked a strong reaction from the public. It shows a nurse, Elena Pagliarini, who has collapsed face down on her desk after working for 10 hours straight at a hospital in the northern city of Cremona. It has become a kind of symbol for the over-taxed health system. Colleague Francesca Mangiatordi, who took the photo, said on Italian television, “We are on our last legs, physically and physiologically.” She appealed to people to follow safety rules and stay in doors, “Otherwise the situation will collapse, provided it hasn’t already.”

Flavia Petrini, the president of the Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care, explained on Italian television that current guidelines had been issued on managing the overwhelming number of cases. “If there are no more beds,” she said, “we have to dedicate our intensive care to those who really need it.” 

The situation in the wealthy region of Lombardy doesn’t bode well for hospitals in the poorer south of the country which are less well set up to deal with the situation. Speaking about Calabria, Massimo Scura, former health commissioner for the region, told the Financial Times, “Calabria simply doesn’t have the capacity to deal with an outbreak, there are not enough beds in intensive care departments to take in patients in serious condition.”

Italy is desperate to slow down the rate of infections. Peter Beaumont, Global Development reporter for the Guardian, explains that to ease the pressure on health systems, “the ambition is to turn the cases on a graph from looking like a little pointy mountain into a speed bump.”

Health workers in Italy now want this to be a warning of what’s to come for other European countries.

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Written by

Rebecca Ann Hughes

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