Nestled in the picturesque hills of Padua in Northern Italy lies the small town of Vo’. Just under 40 miles from Venice, the normally sleepy town is best known for its wine and food produce. But last year it became the centre of global attention when a resident became the first European citizen to die from COVID-19.
On the 21st of February 2020, 77-year-old Adriano Trevisan died in Vo’, ten days after he was admitted to hospital. At this time the world knew relatively little about the coronavirus: there were comparatively few cases outside of China, and it would be another month until the World Health Organisation declared a pandemic. But Trevisan’s death, and that of an 80-year-old Chinese tourist who died a few days earlier in France whose name was never publicly disclosed, confirmed what many now feared: the virus was undoubtedly in Europe. Within weeks Italy would become the centre of the disease in Europe.
Despite being the home of Italy and Europe’s first COVID death, Vo’ has emerged relatively unscathed compared to other parts of northern Italy. “There were three deaths from COVID during the first wave, and five in total,” Mayor Giuliano Martini told VICE World News. “From a health perspective, the situation now is good. The attention during all these months has been high and the prevention was implemented in a serious way.”
Trevisan’s death last February led to Italian authorities implementing measures never before seen in peacetime. This small town of 3,000 was taken over as the army was deployed to man its borders, stopping people from going in or out. Mass testing was rolled out across the town and more and more cases were discovered in the Lombardy and Veneto regions.
Padua has actually weathered the pandemic better than either Veneto or Lombardy, the worst-hit region in Italy, and this has been attributed to the effective contact tracing programme first introduced in Vo’ and later replicated across the region.
A year on, the citizens of Vo’ are preparing to mark the anniversary of Trevisan’s death, and hopefully put the last 12 months behind them.
Trevisan and his friends were regulars at a bar in Vo’ where they would meet up to drink and play cards. Among that group was Renato Turetta, who would later become the second death in the city, and Mario Dalbetto, who would fall ill but survive the virus.
“My husband was sick, he had a fever,” Turetta’s wife, Cristina, recalls. “We fell ill around the same time. I had a fever some days before but it passed at home without taking any meds. Renato's fever, on the other hand, stayed high, so I called the ambulance. They took him from home to the hospital in Schiavoni. We told them that he had met up with Adriano Trevisan, and that they had played cards together at the bar. A doctor thought of swabbing for coronavirus, and everything started from there.”
Upon hearing about the positive cases, local authorities decided to immediately close the small hospital in Schiavonia, transferring patients to a better-equipped facility in Padua.
On the 22nd of February, the Italian government moved to stop the spread of the virus by isolating the municipalities of Vo' and Codogno as well as ten bordering municipalities. Nobody could leave or enter the region. Non-essential businesses and activities were closed.
Turetta was isolated from his family. “Every day the head physician in Padua called me to let me know how he was,” Cristina remembers. “Then he was intubated,” Turetta died at 67 years old on the 10th of March, three weeks after going into intensive care.
“They kept his clothes and personal effects at the hospital to burn everything,” Cristina adds. “In our house, we threw almost everything away. We re-painted the house and deep-cleaned it. We tried everything: after all we did not know what was actually happening and we had to live in that place.”
Churches in the region were closed as they were among the institutions considered as non-essential. “He did not have a proper funeral. It was only me, my daughter, the priest and Renato's sister. That's it. Here, at the cemetery, not in the church.”
As difficult as they were, the decisions taken in those early days by regional authorities transformed the fortunes of this small town, turning it into a case study in how to respond to the pandemic — key insights that were part of a major study published in Nature, and replicated around the world.
Andrea Crisanti is an epidemiologist at the University of Padua. He ran the team that tested everyone in Vo’ after the first case was detected. “I think this was the first screening of an entire population anywhere in the world,” Crisanti told VICE World News. “We showed that where a whole community is tested, or an entire contact group is tested, and all positives cases are isolated, the transmission of the virus is practically blocked. We were also able to show how vital asymptomatic cases were in contributing to the spread. It was fundamental to understanding the dynamics of transmission of the virus and some aspects that then turned out to be fundamental to implement control measures.”
Crisanti’s team have also been able to make discoveries around the prevalence of antibodies, results that will be published in the coming weeks. “We have now shown that antibodies have a duration of at least nine months,” Crisanti says. “We have shown that people who have antibodies are in fact protected when exposed to the virus.”
Despite their relative success in containing the disease, the town was stigmatised for being one of the first places to experience the contagion in Italy.
“During the first months, we were considered plague spreaders,” the mayor recalls. “Even after the lockdown ended, we were isolated. If a person from Vo' was seen in a nearby town, that person was pointed out and people would keep away from them. I remember that the wines sent from a farm here were returned to the sender – the bottles were considered infected. But the virus arrived here by chance, just as it arrived in Codogno.”
Those difficult moments brought the community of Vo’ closer together. “It brought out our ability to work together,” Martini, the town’s mayor, says. “Being able to bring 3,000 people to swabs in three days in such a small municipality, with few resources and very few personnel, is certainly also due to the fact that we have teams that already know how to collaborate – the civil protection, the Alpine troops (a mountain rescue team), and volunteers. The Alpines spent the entire summer delivering masks around the country.”
From being ostracised to being one of the safest places in Italy, the initial trauma was utilised to mount a response as impressive as any region in the world.
“Vo' has stood out for its ability to respond,” the Mayor adds proudly. “We found only 6 positive cases in the last week, the data is constantly decreasing. In nearby towns, there are 50 or 60 positives. The highest number we had is 19 positives. We continue to publish our data. All this contributed to overturning the negative image that Vo' had at the beginning.”