ROME: Milanese prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation into the Pio Albergo Trivulzio, a home for the elderly in Lombardy, the Italian region most severely hit by the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).
The home, the biggest in Italy, has seen over 150 fatalities since the outbreak of the virus, prompting the Italian Ministry of Health to send investigators to the facility, amid allegations senior management severely downplayed the risk of infection.
Police also raided regional government offices in Lombardy, as part of a broader investigation into the rate of fatalities in care homes across the region. According to Italian news agency ANSA, nearly 2,000 elderly patients in nursing homes in Lombardy have died of the virus.
Of Italy’s 165,000 confirmed cases, over 62,000 have been in Lombardy, where the contagion broke out in Italy in late February.
Elderly people around the world are known to be susceptible to COVID-19, particularly those with pre-existing conditions. Checks have also been conducted at other homes in northern Italy, particularly around the city of Bergamo, one of those hardest hit by the outbreak. There have also been severe outbreaks of the virus elsewhere across the peninsula, including at the Oasi nursing home in Troina, Sicily, which alone accounts for the highest number of infections on the island so far.
But the huge number of deaths in Lombardy’s residential centers have raised suspicions that the crisis was not handled well by regional authorities.
Prosecutors are now investigating whether managers could be charged with culpable negligence, or even manslaughter. They are focusing the investigation on an order issued on March 8 by Lombardy’s regional authorities, which ordered care homes to make room for recovering COVID-19 patients in order to relieve overcrowded hospitals, where more and more beds were needed to be converted into intensive care units (ICUs).
Hundreds of patients were immediately moved to several nursing homes, where huge numbers subsequently died. “It was like lighting a match in a barn,” one prosecutor said.
Investigators also pointed out that in care homes the virus was able to spread quickly before it was detected, due to shortages of protective equipment and a lack of testing. Police are also investigating claims by families and doctors that care home staff were ordered not to wear surgical masks so as not to alarm residents.
Health services managers in Lombardy have insisted they complied with all relevant security protocols, and have pledged to cooperate with the investigation.
Research from the London School of Economics has suggested that in countries such as Italy, around half of all COVID-19 deaths could occur in nursing homes.
The study, quoted by Italian newspapers, suggested that between 42 percent and 57 percent of deaths from the virus so far in Italy, Spain, Ireland, France and Belgium had taken place in residential homes for the elderly.
“Half a million elderly people are at risk in Italy. When the virus arrives in a care home, it explodes like a bomb,” Ivan Pedretti, the national secretary of a pensioners’ association said. “Conditions in many homes amount to a perfect storm: An elderly and frail population, staff with little medical expertise and difficulty of maintaining social distancing.
“We need to take concrete measures to help directors of nursing homes and caregivers to take all measures we can to limit the effects of this explosion. Otherwise those homes will be like death camps,” he added.
Relatives of elderly guests at Pio Albergo Trivulzio are furious. “It is a chilling picture of medical malpractice,” Alessandro Azzoni, the president of a committee collecting complaints and evidence on behalf of relatives living at the site, told ANSA. “It was an accident waiting to happen. Since February, we were telling nurses and doctors that they should have used face masks and gloves, but they replied they were not using protection devices so as not to scare our relatives. We would have preferred them scared but still alive.”
Teresa Bellanova, the minister for agriculture, told Arab News: “This situation is unbearable. It is a real tragedy within the tragedy. We have to do something and who is responsible will have to pay.
“Our elderly have built our nation, our welfare is due to their work. We need to be well aware of this and we have to do something,” she added, promising that the investigation would receive “every possible cooperation” from the government.