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Italian Doctors Are Coming Out of Retirement to Treat Coronavirus — And Dying

Italy is losing doctors at a rate of more than one a day, and physicians are begging for better protective gear.
March 20, 2020, 2:33pm
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Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP

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The world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak is devastating Italy’s doctors, with the death toll among physicians now at 14.

Italian doctors have been dying at a rate of more than one a day since the first physician’s death on March 11, according to the federation of Italian doctors guilds, which added five names to its list of “fallen doctors” Thursday. Among the victims were two doctors in the northern city of Como — pneumologist Giuseppe Lanati, 73, and GP Luigi Frusciante, 71 — who had come out of retirement to help respond to the outbreak, only to succumb to the virus themselves.

Italian health workers account for more than 8 percent of the country’s 41,000 COVID-19 cases. Doctors and health experts have sounded the alarm about a dire lack of protective gear for medics; the first “fallen doctor,” 67-year-old Roberto Stella, was hailed as a hero by his colleagues for continuing to treat patients even after supplies of masks had run out in his unit.

Another victim, 57-year-old doctor Marcello Natali, had spoken out publicly on the issue before he died Wednesday. Natali, from Codogno, a city in Lombardy, told Euronews that health workers were facing desperate shortages of supplies, revealing he had had to treat coronavirus patients without gloves.

“We weren't prepared for coronavirus: as doctors of the post-antibiotic era, we grew up thinking that a pill against everything was enough,” he said.

READ: Italy’s coronavirus death toll is so high that one city’s crematorium can’t keep up

Natali died in hospital in Milan Wednesday after developing double pneumonia, according to the Italian Federation of General Practitioners. The group’s regional secretary, Paola Pedrini, told Euronews that the situation was “a war,” with 110 doctors out of 600 in the province of Bergamo alone infected.

“The situation has not gotten better since [the] end of February. We received some mask[s], some gloves kit, nothing else,” he said. “A mask that should last half-a-day, here lasts a week.”

At least 2,629 Italian health workers have been infected by COVID-19 since the onset of the outbreak in February, according to a report published Wednesday by Italy's Group for Evidence-based Medicine (GIMBE). That accounts for 8.3 percent of the total number of infections in Italy, more than twice the rate in China, according to figures published on a medical site from the Journal of the American Medical Association.

READ: Coronavirus has northern Italy’s hospital’s on the brink of collapse

“No more talking: adequately protect those who must protect us,” GIMBE’s director Nino Cartabellotta told reporters. He said the true rate of infection among Italy’s health workers was likely to be even higher, because they were often working with inadequate protective equipment, and were not always tested.

Experts warn doctors are the profession Italy can least afford to lose as it fights the world’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, having overtaken China as the country with the highest COVID-19 death toll Thursday. It’s already resorted to calling retired physicians back into service to help it combat the disease, and has accepted help from medical teams from China. On Saturday, further help will arrive in the form of a team of 65 doctors and nurses from Cuba, who have experience treating Ebola patients.

“Without an influx of urgently needed protective equipment, more healthcare workers will fall ill, reducing the availability of care for patients, generating new clusters of cases, and dangerously weakening the fight against the disease,” said Dr. Claudia Lodesani, who is leading the COVID-19 response in Italy for Doctors Without Borders.

The problems faced by healthcare workers in Italy are being reported in other European countries too, amid soaring demand for protective equipment and tests. In the UK, doctors have been pleading with the government to give priority COVID-19 testing for health workers, after doctors who suspected they had the virus were told they would not be tested.

READ: British doctors are begging the government to test them for the coronavirus

Shortages have also been an issue in Spain and France, which have the highest death tolls in Europe outside Italy. Coral Merino, an ER nurse at a hospital in Alcalá de Henares, northeast of Madrid, told Business Insider that her job was made harder by regular shortages of personal protective equipment. “There simply aren't enough masks to change them each time we go to see an isolated patient. There are no proper gowns,” she said.

Cover: Medical personnel at work in the intensive care unit of the hospital of Brescia, Italy, Thursday, March 19, 2020. Italy has become the country with the most coronavirus-related deaths, surpassing China by registering 3,405 dead. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)

This article originally appeared on VICE US.