Italy hopes virus is easing but fears new onslaught in south

As the dead in Italy keep piling up, virologists warn that the actual number of Italy’s positive cases is up to five times as high as the official count. (File/AFP)
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Updated 27 March 2020

Italy hopes virus is easing but fears new onslaught in south

  • Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s pandemic, has by far the most virus deaths of any nation in the world, a grim tally of 8,165
  • Despite the toll, officials have also expressed cautious optimism that the exponential spread of the virus is starting to slow in the hard-hit north

ROME: Doctors and nurses in Italy’s overwhelmed northern hospitals have welcomed a slight stabilizing in the number of coronavirus infections but fear the virus is still silently spreading in the south two weeks into the West’s most extreme nationwide shutdown.
As the dead in Italy keep piling up, virologists warn that the actual number of Italy’s positive cases is up to five times as high as the official count of 80,539. That means infections will still climb even with Italians ordered to stay home for all but essential activity.
Italy, the epicenter of Europe’s pandemic, has by far the most virus deaths of any nation in the world, a grim tally of 8,165. On Friday, Italy is on track to surpass China in its infection count and have the most cases of any nation behind the US
‘’It is something devastating,’’ said the Rev. Mario Carminati, who has turned over a church in the tiny Lombard town of Seriate to host coffins before they are taken by military convoy to be cremated. This week, dozens were lined up in two neat rows down the central aisle, and were immediately replaced by new ones when they were taken away.
“At least the relatives and family know that someone is taking care of them, with a prayer and a benediction before they are taken away,’’ he said.
Despite the toll, officials have also expressed cautious optimism that the exponential spread of the virus is starting to slow in the hard-hit north, thanks to two weeks of military-enforced stay-at-home orders. For several days this week, new infections and deaths showed signs of slowing down, and emergency rooms weren’t seeing the tsunami of sick that characterized the first weeks of the pandemic following Italy’s first positive test Feb. 20.
“The numbers are still high, but for a few days now the numbers have stopped rising, thank God,” said Dr. Luca Lorini, head of intensive care at the Pope John XXIII hospital in Bergamo, one of the hardest hit of Italy’s public hospitals.
Some 500 medical personnel at the hospital are infected, and Lorini said he has found himself treating colleagues, friends, children of friends and parents of friends in his overwhelmed 88-bed ICU that serves a city of 120,000.
He marvels that he is still standing and wonders if maybe he was infected early on with slight symptoms and developed immunity. Nationwide, at least 33 doctors have died and 6,414 medical personnel have tested positive
“We know it before we go into battle, and we accept it,” Lorini told The Associated Press.
Elsewhere in Bergamo, the Italian army’s Alpini mountaineering forces are building a field hospital to be staffed, in part, by some of the 150 medical personnel sent by Russia, one of only a handful of countries along with China and Cuba to respond to Italy’s urgent appeal for medical equipment, protective masks and personnel.
But the need is also growing in the south, where hospitals are even less prepared and equipped than the prosperous north.
“It’s a matter of hours, not days,” the governor of the Campania region that includes Naples wrote to the central government, complaining that his urgent requests for ventilators had gone unheeded. “There is a real chance of adding a tragedy of the south to the tragedy of the north.”
Cateno De Luca, mayor of the Sicilian city of Messina, took the extraordinary step of recording a warning to residents in his nasal, gravely voice for drones to play as they fly over the seaside city monitoring residents’ movements.
“Don’t go outside! That is an order from Mayor De Luca!” the drone blasts.
Italy’s high death toll and aggressive spread of the virus has led Italian epidemiologists to estimate that the true number of infected could be as high as 450,000, and that under-testing is putting Italians at risk of further contagion. Currently, Italy only tests people showing symptoms, because its labs cannot process any more, and to date more than 360,000 tests have been performed.
Virologist Dr. Andrea Crisanti, director of molecular medicine at the University of Padua and a consultant for the Veneto regional government, points to the only controlled epidemiological study done in the outbreak, in the tiny Veneto town of Vo’Euganeo, as evidence that Italy’s true numbers of infection are much higher — and that the risk of not testing more widely is enormous.
Italy recorded its first death in Vo, and the town was locked down Feb. 22 and the entire population of 3,300 tested. According to the study, 3% of Vo’s residents were infected, but between 50%-75% of them were asymptomatic. But because all positive cases were identified, isolated and quarantined, regardless of whether they were symptomatic, Vo has seen its new infections crumble.
“This tiny town has taught us a lot,” Crisanti told state-run RAI radio.
Crisanti said the Vo study showed that even asymptomatic people transmit the virus, since the few new infections registered between tests were within households of asymptomatic people. The only way to stop the spread, he told RAI, is more testing, active surveillance of all positive cases and quarantine.
Based on the Vo results, Veneto Gov. Luca Zaia is planning to vastly ramp up testing across the region, aiming to reach 20,000 tests a day and hand out protective masks to each family. Already, Veneto has tested nearly 80,000 people, and compared to hard-hit Lombardy next door, has a comparatively low mortality rate with 287 dead and 6,935 positive cases.
The government on March 10 imposed a nationwide lockdown after an initial quarantine of a dozen small towns in Lombardy and Veneto failed to stop the spread of the virus. On Thursday, Italy idled all non-essential production and industry, the most widespread manufacturing shutdown in the world.
The industrial lobby Confindustria has estimated it could cost 70 billion-to-100 billion euros ($77 billion-$110 billion) of national wealth a month if 70% of companies are closed.
Two weeks in, the measures appear to be having their effect on the virus, slowing new infections and relieving pressure on the health system. By Thursday, more than 10,000 of Italy’s 80,000 infected had been cured.
Twenty days after coming down with a fever, and after nearly a week in an air-pressurized helmet pumping oxygen into his virus-ravaged lungs, Fausto Russo is now breathing on his own and hopes to go home as early as Sunday from the Santa Maria Goretti hospital in Latina, near Rome.
“It’s a horrible sensation, not being able to breathe,” said Russo, a 38-year-old fitness trainer. “Imagine putting your head under water.”
Lorini, the doctor, knows well the toll that the virus takes on both patients and hospital staff. When he goes home each night, a five-minute walk from the hospital, he allows himself a few minutes to listen to music and “unplug” from the intensity of the ICU ward.
His current favorite song is Bruce Springstein’s “Secret Garden.” He smiles as he thinks about the lyrics. “You’ve gone a million miles/ How far’d you get/ To that place where/ You can’t remember/ And you can’t forget.”
“Listen to it today,” Lorini suggested. “It will give you a sense of tenderness.”


Trump finally dons mask as US sets new virus case record

Updated 18 min 36 sec ago

Trump finally dons mask as US sets new virus case record

  • “I’ve never been against masks but I do believe they have a time and a place,” POTUS tells reporters
  • The US is the worst hit by COVID-19, with more than 3.2 million cases and at least 134,000 deaths as of Saturday

BETHESDA, USA: President Donald Trump finally yielded to pressure and wore a face mask in public for the first time on Saturday as the US posted another daily record for coronavirus cases, while Disney World reopened in a state hit hard by the pandemic.

White House experts leading the national fight against the contagion have recommended wearing face coverings in public to prevent transmission of the illness.

But Trump had repeatedly avoided wearing a mask, even after staffers at the White House tested positive for the virus and as more aides have taken to wearing them.

Hours after the World Health Organization urged countries to step up control measures to rein in the disease, Trump donned a dark mask bearing the presidential seal as he visited wounded military veterans at the Walter Reed military hospital in a suburb outside Washington.

“I’ve never been against masks but I do believe they have a time and a place,” he told reporters as he left the White House.

Trump is trailing Democrat Joe Biden in the polls ahead of a November election and surveys show most Americans are unhappy with how he has handled the public health crisis.

But the president has continued to praise his own response to the pandemic despite a cascade of figures showing the extent of the disease’s spread across the United States.

 

Record-breaking numbers

The country posted yet another daily record of confirmed cases on Saturday night, with 66,528 new infections, while the death toll rose by almost 800 to nearly 135,000.

As of Saturday, the US had recorded more than 3.2 million coronavirus cases and at least 134,000 deaths from the disease. 

It is the country worst hit by the illness, followed by Brazil — which surpassed 70,000 deaths on Friday.

The coronavirus pandemic has infected over 12.5 million people, killed over 560,000 and triggered massive economic damage since the disease was first detected in China late last year.

In Florida, where nearly one in six of those new infections were recorded, the Walt Disney World theme park partially reopened after four months of shutdown prompted by the virus.

Hundreds of people queued to enter the park in Orlando, some sporting Mickey ears but all wearing face masks, with social distancing and other hygiene precautions also in place.

Days earlier, top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said that Florida had begun reopening before meeting the criteria that would have enabled it to do so safely.

 

Aggressive approach urged

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on countries to adopt an aggressive approach to tackling the virus, citing successful mitigation efforts in Italy, South Korea and elsewhere.

“Across all walks of life, we are all being tested to the limit,” he told a virtual news conference in Geneva on Friday.
“Only aggressive action combined with national unity and global solidarity can turn this pandemic around,” he added.

Elsewhere, French officials warned of rising cases in metropolitan France as the death toll there topped 30,000.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted a decision to allow bars and other businesses to reopen may have come “too soon” after his country reported a record 1,500 new infections on Friday.

Australian authorities said they would slash by half the number of people allowed to return from overseas each day after a fresh surge in cases that saw a lockdown imposed on Melbourne, the country’s second-largest city.

In Hong Kong, a spike has marked a setback for the city after daily life had largely returned to normal, with restaurants and bars resuming regular business and cultural attractions reopening.

Schools in the city will be closed from Monday after the city recorded “exponential growth” in locally transmitted infections.