Italian hospitals face breaking point in fall virus surge

Full Screen
1 / 12

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

Doctors carry a coronavirus patient in the Intensive Care Unit at Vareses Circolo hospital, in Varese, Italy, Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. During Italy's autumn pandemic resurgence, concern is falling less on intensive care wards and more on regular medical wards, as eight regions have seen the needle move alarmingly into the red-alert zone with more than half of hospital beds dedicated to coronavirus patients. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

MILAN – Dr. Luca Cabrini was certain his hospital in the heart of Lombardy‘s lake district would reach its breaking point caring for 300 COVID-19 patients. So far, virus patients fill 500 beds and counting.

Italy, which shocked the world and itself when hospitals in the wealthy north were overwhelmed with coronavirus cases last spring, is again facing a systemic crisis, as confirmed positives pass the symbolic threshold of 1 million.

“We are very close to not keeping up. I cannot say when we will reach the limit, but that day is not far off,’’ said Cabrini, who runs the intensive care ward at Varese’s Circolo hospital, the largest in the province of 1 million people northwest of Milan.

The hospital expanded its 20-bed ICU ward to 45 beds during Italy’s deadly spring peak. It had 38 patients last weekend, and Cabrini was preparing to set up beds in an operating theater this week, “something we would have preferred to avoid.”

As dire as Italy’s ICU situation is once again, it's not critical care that is most worrying doctors during the pandemic’s autumn resurgence. It's sub-intensive and infectious disease wards caring for less gravely ill patients, who are often younger and sometimes require care for longer periods.

The Italian doctors federation called this week for a nationwide lockdown to forestall a collapse of the medical system, marked by the closure of non-emergency procedures. The government is facing tougher criticism than in the spring, when the health crisis was met with an outpouring of solidarity.

As of Wednesday, 52% of Italy's hospital beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients, above the 40% warning threshold set by the Health Ministry. Nine of Italy’s 21 regions and autonomous provinces are already securely in the red-alert zone, above 50% virus occupancy, with Lombardy at 75%, Piedmont at 92% and South Tyrol at an astonishing 99%.

Lombardy, Italy's most populous and productive region, is again the epicenter of Italy’s pandemic, following resurgences in Spain, France and most of Europe that have also put hospitals under dire pressure.