World

Death at home: Unseen toll of Italy’s virus crisis

MILAN: It took Ms Silvia Bertuletti 11 days of frantic phone calls to persuade a doctor to visit her 78-year-old father Alessandro, who was gripped by fever and struggling for breath.

When an on-call physician did go to her house near Bergamo, at the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy, on the evening of March 18, it was too late.

Mr Alessandro Bertuletti was pronounced dead on the afternoon of March 19, 10 minutes before an ambulance, called hours earlier, arrived. The only medication he had been prescribed, over the phone, was a mild painkiller and a broad-spectrum antibiotic.

"My father was left to die alone, at home, without help," Ms Bertuletti, 48, said.

"We were simply abandoned. No one deserves an end like that."

According to latest figures, Italy has over 124,000 cases and more than 15,300 deaths.

Interviews with families, doctors and nurses in Italy's stricken Lombardy region indicate that Ms Bertuletti's experience is not uncommon, that scores are dying at home as symptoms go unchecked and that phone consultations are not always enough.

"What led to this situation is that many family doctors didn't visit their patients for weeks," said Dr Riccardo Munda, who is doing the work of two doctors in Selvino and Nembro, two towns near Bergamo, after a colleague caught the virus.

"And I can't blame them, because that's how they saved their own skin."

TREATMENT

"Doctors give people at home a treatment. But if this treatment doesn't work, if there is no doctor who checks and changes or adjusts the medicines, then the patient dies."

A spokesman for the state-run ATS health agency in Bergamo said the authorities in the Lombardy region, rated among the world's most efficient for health services, told family doctors to "deal with patients by phone as much as possible", limiting home visits "to reduce contagion and waste of protective equipment".

There is growing evidence that the official death toll vastly understates the real total because so many people are dying at home.

Mr Pietro Zucchelli, director of the Zucchelli funeral home that serves several villages in the Seriana Valley around Bergamo, said that over the past two weeks more than 50 per cent of his job had been collecting bodies from people's homes.

"We are used to seeing people die, but normally it feels like you are accompanying them at the end of the road," said Ms Maura Zucchelli, a nurse at Itineris, a private company which provides medical assistance at home in the Bergamo area.

"Now you go to people's homes, and within 48-72 hours the patient is dead. It's draining. It's like war." - REUTERS

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