“I’m sorry if you have difficulties hearing me; it’s because of the face mask,” says Dr. Jean Pierre Ramponi, Director of Chiari Hospital in northern Italy, over the phone. “We are tired, we are all holding out. The situation has been the same for the past two weeks; so far the number of new incoming patients does not seem to slow down.”
The Chiari Hospital is at the front line of Italy’s battle against the coronavirus, which has claimed 3,405 lives in the past few weeks according to the Italian Civil Protection Department, surpassing on Thursday the death toll in China, where the virus first appeared.
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Dr. Paolo Terragnoli, Director of the Emergencies Department at the hospital, says half of all the beds in the hospital have been dedicated to victims of the pandemic, but they are still overwhelmed.
“We have canceled all non-COVID-19 related operations apart from the emergencies, and we have reached a point of saturation”, he tells Al Arabiya English by telephone. “We try to do our best. But I frankly don’t know how long this can continue for.”
“The trend really does not seem to have reduced in any way. I really hope the containment measures will start to have an effect by the end of this week,” says Dr. Terragnoli.
On Wednesday in Bergamo, not too far from Chiari, a parade of military trucks transported 60 coffins to be cremated in nearby cities. The only crematorium in Bergamo, working 24/7, is unable to cope with the surging number of deaths in the area.
Earlier this month, Italy became the first Western country to launch a nationwide lockdown to contain the outbreak.
Italy has a universal health care system. But now, its hospitals and medical staff are overwhelmed, prompting anguished debate between doctors about who gets to be treated first.
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The Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care has issued guidelines for what it calls “catastrophe medicine.” Given the shortage of beds, ventilators and doctors, patients with the “best chance of success and hope of life” should have access to intensive care, the organization says.
To avoid resorting to such extreme measures, the solution “must come from the people” says Dr. Ramponi. “If they stick in their head the importance of social distancing, this would hugely help to slow down the spread of the disease,” he said.
According to the Italian Interior Ministry, 43,000 people have been charged for violating the containment measures since the beginning of the lockdown. “I see too many people still out and about for no reason. This must end. This is the real medicine for now, and it’s not a banality.”
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Dr. Terragnoli said the Italian experience was an example for other countries that are yet to hit their peak infection rates.
“My recommendation is to prepare, in good time. This enemy must not be underestimated in any way: it is sneaky, but extremely powerful,” he said.
“Hospitals all over the world need to prepare, otherwise it will be a disaster. Italy was derided in Europe, but it will serve as a lesson for those countries that still do not have an accurate perception of the danger.”
“Underestimating [this danger] will result in an extremely high human cost that will be paid later,” he said.