Home international news Coronavirus: Italy’s hardest-hit city wants you to see how COVID-19 is affecting...

Coronavirus: Italy’s hardest-hit city wants you to see how COVID-19 is affecting its hospitals


The sheer numbers of people succumbing to the coronavirus is overwhelming every hospital in northern Italy.

Staff frantically wave us out of the way, pushing gurneys carrying men and women on mobile respirators – it’s not chaos, but it is hectic.

They rush past wards already rammed with beds all filled with people in terrible distress – gasping for air, clutching at their chests and at tubes pumping oxygen into their oxygen-starved lungs.

I’m in the main hospital in Bergamo, the hardest-hit hospital in Italy in the hardest-hit town in the hardest-hit province, Lombardy – and it’s just plain scary.

Masked, gloved and in a hazmat suit, my team and I are led through corridors full of gasping people who look terribly ill.

I ask what ward I am in

“This isn’t really a ward, it’s a waiting room, we just have to use every bit of space,” my guide, Vanna Toninelli, head of the hospital press office tells me.

The medical teams are fighting a war here and they are losing.

The sheer numbers of people succumbing to the coronavirus is overwhelming every hospital in northern Italy – and it could easily overwhelm the rest of the country as well.

The staff are working flat out trying to keep their patients from deteriorating further. They are trying to stop them from dying.

In groups they crowd around the latest patients. Attaching monitors, drips and most importantly respirators. Without them the patients will simply go downhill fast.

Really fast. Deadly fast.

It looks like an intensive care unit (ICU), but it is actually just an emergency arrivals ward. The ICU is full. The people being treated are new arrivals, but they look far worse than that.

Anywhere else in the world they would be intensive care cases but here, to qualify, you are actually on the point of death, not just gravely ill.

In this pandemic, gravely ill is considered a reasonable position. It really is that bad.

The arrival of people here is an absolute constant. This killer pandemic is virtually out of control.

We have all heard what has been going on here, but no journalist has been allowed in here to see it, until now.

The city of Bergamo invited us in to show everyone what a catastrophic emergency, that nobody has ever experienced before, looks like.

They want you to see it. They want the world’s population to question their own governments’ responses.

Because there can be no excuse anymore that nobody knew. Italy did not. Now everyone else does.

Through plastic bubbles that fit over the heads of the most ill, staff struggle to communicate with patients.

The weak can barely speak and above the noise of the ward and the constant bleep of heart monitors and breathing pumps, it’s almost impossible to make out what they are saying.

The bubbles are attempting to equalise the air pressure in the lungs.

Nobody expected this, nobody even imagined they would be treating so many so quickly.

And for the record, it is NOT like flu, it is more often than not chronic pneumonia and it is killing hundreds here each day.

The head of emergency care, Dr Roberto Cosentini, says they have never seen anything like it, and he and his staff are warning other countries, especially the UK, that they will see it soon.

“It’s a very severe pneumonia, and so it’s a massive strain for every health system, because we see every day 50 to 60 patients who come to our emergency department with pneumonia, and most of them are so severe they need very high volumes of oxygen.

“And so we had to reorganise our emergency room and our hospital [to] three levels of intensive care.

The Papa Giovanni XXII hospital is one of the most advanced in Europe, but even this gleaming mega hospital is on its knees.

Bergamo is the absolute centre of this epidemic and the hospital is attempting to deal with a crisis that was never imagined.

Many of the medical staff have worked or trained in the UK. Dr Lorenzo Grazioli worked in Leicester for a year.

He says his friends have been ringing him constantly to get a sense of what it is like. He told me they are bracing themselves for the same and are very worried.

He, like every other doctor and nurse I spoke to, urged the UK to follow the example of China and Italy, and lock down everything straight away.

It is, they say, the only way to slow the virus down: not beat it, slow it.

“I have never felt so stressed in my life, I’m an intensivist, and I am quite used to intense moments, and the choices, and people are critical and die without any treatment, and you [usually] make the difference,” he told me.

“But when you are at this point you realise that you are not enough.

“We are 100 anaesthetists, we are doing our best, but maybe it’s not enough.”

In labs, staff are continuously testing for the virus and attempting to find something that can beat it. They say it’s a long way off.

The problem facing health services across the world is that when the infection curve goes up it rockets, and all resources, all testing, all supplies are used up instantly. Multiple hospitals all making the same demands at the same time.

It’s crippling – here they call it the apocalypse.

Bergamo wanted us to see this, as I have said, and they want to send a simple message: “Get ready.”


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