MILAN — In March, the first coronavirus outbreak in the West put Italy's hospitals under unprecedented strain, with health authorities facing what they described as a "tsunami" of new patients. As intensive care units filled with COVID-19 patients, hospitals scrambled to convert other wards, freeing up corridors and operating theaters for patients of the potentially fatal virus. All non-essential surgeries and appointments were canceled.

Today, the outbreak has been gradually brought under control, with the number of coronavirus patients in Italy in need of intensive care below 500 for the first time since early March. Still, hospitals are far from returning to a "normal" pre-coronavirus life. Indeed, the huge backlog of postponed surgeries and appointments means that a new crisis looms large, according to a new study by consultancy firm Nomisma, while a top health care official warned of the risk of 20,000 deaths if urgent surgeries cannot be performed in time.

Since early March, hospitals in Italy postponed some 75% of all surgical operations, reports state broadcaster Rai News. That means hospitals now have some 410,000 surgeries to catch up with. One example of the backlog, according to the Nomisma study: For a coronary bypass or coronary angioplasty operation, waiting times that are usually around 20-25 days are now four months long, the authors of the report told the Quotidiano Sanità, a news website specializing in health care.

The number of postponed checkups and appointments stands at 11 million.

Carlo Palermo, national secretary of a national union of health professionals, confirmed to La Stampa that waiting times will be long. "Considering that our hospitals perform four million surgeries a year, and that we will only be able to increase our activity by 20%, at most, it will take at least six months to go through the backlog."

COVID-19 serological tests in Milan — Photo: Marco Passaro/IPA/ZUMA

"Postponing check-ups and surgeries in operating theaters for so long could cost us 20,000 deaths by the end of the year for cardiovascular diseases alone," Palermo said. Specialist clinics — which have remained closed or only partly open during the outbreak — are also facing a huge backlog. Antonio Magi, the president of the union of specialist clinics' staff, puts the number of postponed checks and appointments at 11 million.

This adds to existing pressures. Medical staff have already canceled their holidays and worked overtime to respond to one of the world's most severe coronavirus outbreaks, which has cost the lives of more than 33,000 Italians, including at least 165 doctors. The coronavirus also forces hospitals to work more carefully around bookings and sanitizing equipment. The way out, for some, would be to hire more doctors and nurses, perhaps on six-month contracts. Even then, it's unlikely the medical staff that have been hailed as heroes during the outbreak will be able to go any sun this summer.

Consider that even non life-threatening conditions need care as quickly as possible. Right now, for example, for a hip transplant, waiting times have doubled to at least six months.

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