Italian Doctors and Nurses under ‘Unspeakable and Unbearable Stress’

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Medical staff in Italy are under “unspeakable and unbearable stress” as they risk their lives in the fight against the novel coronavirus epidemic, a union representative said on Saturday.

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Italy has the world’s highest official death toll from the epidemic, with 14,681 COVID-19 fatalities reported by Friday, along with nearly 120,000 infections.

Among doctors, nurses and care workers, there are around 120 dead and 11,252 infected, Carlo Palermo, Head of the Anaao Assomed Doctors’ Trade Union, told a group of foreign journalists.

“The number of infected is growing at a shocking rate,’’ he said.

Among the dead, there are two nurses who have taken their own lives.

Commenting on this, Palermo said the emotional strain on staff in COVID-19 hospital wards is huge.

“They face death every day, and it’s not easy.

“They have even replaced priests because they, and not relatives, give the last goodbye to patients,’’ he said, his voice breaking with emotion.

COVID-19 patients die alone in the hospital, as visits are banned due to the risks of infection.

There are also strict restrictions on funerals, which can be attended by very small groups of people.

Palermo said medical staff, including family doctors, working outside hospitals, were initially left without adequate protective gear, due to a general underestimation of the threat posed by the virus.

“We were unprepared, it’s no use beating around the bush,’’ he said.

In January, there was a “strange surge in bronchial pneumonia’’ cases, but this was not linked to the novel coronavirus that had been recently detected in China, Palermo recalled.

In the northern region of Lombardy, the hotspot of Italy’s epidemic, the virus spread initially in hospitals, from patients, who were not recognised as new coronavirus cases.

The failure early on to isolate infected cases and to give higher-grade masks to doctors and nurses, rather than simple surgical ones, escalated the contagion, Palermo said.

The situation has improved in crisis-hit regions like Lombardy, while there are still protective gear shortages in central and southern regions where the epidemic is less serious, the trade unionist reported.

“Italy was the first country in the Western world to face such a big and unexpected problem.

“… We all expected the virus to stay confined in China, but that’s not how it was,’’ he said.

Palermo said Italy and other nations need a long-term strategy because once the acute phase of the epidemic is over, the virus will stay with us until a vaccine is found.

“Nobody should be under any illusions, this will totally change the way in which we live,’’ he said.

“You can be certain we will have new outbreaks, as is already happening in China.’’

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