ROCCA DI PAPA, Italy (AP) — The World Health Organization has called it a “massacre.” The Health Ministry sent in inspectors. Prosecutors are investigating, and an appalled mayor said the managers of a residential facility she ordered sealed had “jeopardized the life and health of the most fragile.”
A scandal over coronavirus infections and deaths in Italy’s nursing homes took on broader dimensions Friday, with the National Institutes of Health conservatively estimating that at least 6,773 residents had died since Feb. 1, 40% of them either infected with the virus or with COVID-19 symptoms.
The true number is higher, since the agency surveyed a fraction of Italy’s eldercare homes and few residents of nursing homes nationwide were ever tested. But the institute’s survey gave a sample of the toll since Feb. 1: In hard-hit Bergamo province, 534 residents died. The province of Milan reported 749 deaths in nursing homes.
Some 36% of the thousands of deaths cited by the National Institutes of Health occurred in the second half of March, the period when infections were at their height in Italy and the country had the most virus-related deaths in the world.
The latest nursing home to be placed under police-enforced quarantine was in the tiny town of Rocca di Papa, in the hills south of Rome. Five people have died at the San Raffaele home and 148 tested positive for the virus, compared to 11 confirmed infections in the rest of the town.
“Inside it’s a ghost town,” recounted funeral home worker Luciano Bambino as he retrieved a body from the San Raffaele mortuary Friday. “The corridors, the gardens. It was deserted, spectral. They were all closed in, closed off from every point of view.”
The facility was cordoned off and its residents and staff placed in quarantine, after the acting mayor, Veronica Cimino, said the management failed to cooperate when she asked for data about virus prevention measures. Then, it was determined that the nursing home’s medical director lacked proper credentials for the job.
Prosecutors finally were called in to investigate after virus-related data and documentation didn’t line up, police said. Ambulances came and went Friday to transport critical patients to a hospital.
“It’s absurd that a private clinic has jeopardized the life and health of such fragile people,” Cimino told The Associated Press outside the facility. She said she was concerned for the residents inside and for their relatives, who have been prevented from visiting by government decree but also deprived of regular status updates from staff about the health of their loved ones.
The facility, for its part, blamed the region for failing to provide virus tests for residents and staff members, said it had recently replaced the medical director and stated it was cooperating with authorities to turn the home into a COVID-19 facility.
Criminal investigations of nursing home deaths and infections are underway elsewhere, including one targeting Italy’s largest care facility, the 1,000-bed Pio Albergo Trivulzio home in Milan.
Prosecutors got involved after staff reported that managers prevented them from wearing protective equipment and masks for fear of scaring the residents. The Trivulzio home has said it followed all security protocols.
The governor of the Lombardy region, Attilio Fontana, on Friday blamed unnamed “technicians” for a regional proposal he approved to send recovering COVID-19 patients to nursing homes to free up hospital beds. Unions representing medical workers have said the measure may have contributed to the infections at Trivulzio and elsewhere.
Fontana insisted he had done nothing wrong and noted that the transfers were only authorized if the nursing homes could guarantee isolated spaces and dedicated staff.
The Health Ministry launched its own investigation into the 143 Trivulzio deaths since March. It said it is seeking to determine if the hospital transfers violated ministry norms prohibiting the entry of possibly infected people into eldercare facilities .
This week, the World Health Organization representative advising the Italian government, Dr. Ranieri Guerra, termed Italy’s toll of nursing home deaths a “massacre.” He said the scandal must become an opportunity for the government to reassess how it cares for its elderly.
“I am part of an organization that is asking the government the same thing: What happened and why?” he said.
Relatives of residents want the same.
The newly constituted Justice and Truth Committee for the Trivulzio Victims, launched by the son of a Trivulzio resident issued a public demand for information and action to immediately protect residents.
“We want everything done to save our dear ones,” the group said in a statement.
Winfield reported from Rome.
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