Health and Wellness

‘We fear that we have almost lost control’: Doctors and nurses account for more than 8% of Italy’s coronavirus cases

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Doctors and nurses account for more than eight per cent of all coronavirus cases in Italy with the number rising to more than 10 per cent in one of the hardest hit regions.

The infection rate among medical staff in Italy is twice that found in China, where the virus originated, researchers said. Here, around 3,300 health workers were infected out of a total of 81,000 cases – a rate of around four per cent

The figures show how much danger frontline medical and nursing staff are putting themselves in, with experts blaming a lack of protection in the early stages of the crisis for the large number of cases among medical staff.

Infected health workers account for 2,629 of all coronavirus cases in Italy, equivalent to 8.3 per cent of the total, according to data compiled on Tuesday by the Gimbe Foundation, a health policy think tank based in Bologna, one of the cities most affected by the infection. The data on which the foundation’s study was based are official figures from the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (Principal Health Institute).

In the northern region of Piedmont, one of the worst affected areas, health workers are thought to account for 10.6 per cent of cases, according to separate data compiled by the region’s crisis unit. The unit has estimated that up to 250 doctors and nurses in Piedmont are infected with the virus.

According to the Anaao Assomed union for medical managers, between 110 and 150 doctors could have contracted the virus in the course of their work. “We fear that we have almost lost control,” said Chiara Rivetti, the union’s secretary.

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Francesco Coppolella of the NurSind trade union for nurses said: “We fear that there will be hundreds of cases and we are only at the beginning.”

Across Italy, five directors of anesthesia and resuscitation are among the doctors who have tested positive, according to Gilberto Fiore, a regional head of the Italian Hospital Resuscitation Anesthesiologists Association. Some are themselves being treated in hospital; one is in intensive care.

“These are the ones who were in the front line at the beginning of the health emergency,” he said.

Mr Fiore blamed a lack of protective equipment for the high prevalence of the virus among doctors and nurses. “At the beginning they were without inadequate protection to deal with such an emergency,” he said.

Roberto Venesia, secretary of the Italian Federation of General Practitioners, agreed that doctors dealing with coronavirus cases didn’t have proper protection. “We try to protect health workers and especially local doctors but it’s not enough,” he said. “It is unthinkable to treat sick patients or those who have tested positive at home with [just] a surgeon’s mask.”

He added: “At least 200 anesthesiologists are off work. At the moment we are coping but when the situation worsens it’s going to be difficult. The number of infected doctors is increasing and there will be a notable escalation when the epidemic reaches its peak.”

He said specialised task forces of doctors were needed to treat coronavirus patients at home.

Doctors or nurses who have come into contact with infected individuals are currently placed in quarantine and the practice has been not to test people who don’t have symptoms of the virus. But in order to avoid quarantining doctors unnecessarily and depriving hospitals of vitally needed expertise, attempts will now be made to test health personnel routinely.

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However, this will be harder in at least one city: a key chemical needed for the tests has run out in Turin, although new supplies are expected over the weekend.

Professor Giovanni Di Perri, director of the clinical department of infectious diseases of the University of Turin, said: “The majority of the contagion to doctors and nurses occurred at the beginning of the epidemic, when they visited many hospitalised patients with a diagnosis other than Covid-19.

“Now the situation is very different: any suspicious symptom, such as cough or fever, triggers all the procedures needed to protect health personnel.”

However, Prof Perri said the risk to medical staff remained. “The demand for beds is such that no health system in the world could support such numbers,” he said. “And to create new places for patients, we are forced to use facilities that were not intended to handle such cases.”

He said he did not believe that doctors had contributed greatly to the transmission of the infection. “The bulk of the epidemic is due to the movement of people. Now let’s wait for this quarantine [Italy’s nationwide restrictions on movement] to take effect,” he said.

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