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Fear, Tents And Triage As Coronavirus Spreads In Italy

Shortages of medical supplies are already hitting in the northern city of Turin, in Italy, which is by far the worst hit European country from the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Tourists in Milan on Feb. 24
Tourists in Milan on Feb. 24
Alberto Giachino

TURIN — They began taking shape over the weekend, erected by civil protection officers from the northern Piemonte region, inside or next to the hospitals that have emergency rooms: pneumatic tents, lit and heated, for the pre-triage sorting. The goal: a different pathway to deal with suspected contagion of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Italy, which has confirmed five deaths and more than 200 cases Monday, by far Europe's most widespread outbreak of the virus.

First the inspections by technical officers, then the electrical connections, and finally the tents, spread out and inflated. Scenes from another time, reminiscent of a war zone, which never fail to make an impression on locals. It makes you want to explain that these are all preventative measures— no one has seen anything like this for decades.

"It seems like we're in a war," murmured an old man as he walked in front of the tent dominating the emergency room at San Giovanni Molinette hospital.

But before being allowed into the emergency room, everyone must have their temperature taken to check for fever, and answer the necessary questions to be directed toward the most appropriate course of care.

At Mauriziano hospital, a separate triage room has been proposed instead of the tents. The alternative is still under consideration — though no one knows for how long.

Masks, gel and disinfectant are running out.

Some hospitals, such as Città della Salute di Torino, forged ahead . At the entrance of the emergency room at Molinette, in the "hot room" where ambulances stop to unload patients, a table was set up with doctors and nurses, all wearing surgical masks.

To each arriving visitor, some of whom were also wearing masks, the staff politely asked the same questions: "Pardon me, by chance do you have a fever, any symptoms?" Questions that the new arrivals had anticipated, having been informed by the public health campaign transmitted by the media. They said no, or simply shook their heads, before making their way toward the emergency room door to visit friends and family who were ill.

In Turin — Photo: Alberto Gandolfo/Pacific Press/ZUMA

The collective unease, mixed with concern, was palpable even with the masks on.

"Afraid? Hell no, I spent nine years in the army…" quipped one of the workers at the entrance.

The worst is to be assumed with a virus about which little is known, from the length of the incubation period to its ability to survive on surfaces. Italian nurses' unions are asking for guarantees. "The nurses and health workers, in addition to offering their skills, are putting their bodies on the line, and the risk of contracting the virus themselves or passing it on to their families is multiplied for obvious reasons," reads a statement from the union NurSind Piemonte. "The chronic shortage of staff in these services is also cause for concern."

Hospitals are beginning to ration.

Another union, Nursing Up, has sought to focus attention on the protection measures it judges insufficient, and more generally on what it calls a "hobbled" organizational effort.The messages that arrive from hospitals to union representatives give the impression of a growing desperation. There are those who lament not being consulted or involved in the mounting of the tents ("They don't even know where to start!"), those who curse themselves for having switched swifts and finding themselves in the middle of it all ("Total delirium today, the people are crazed").

The Amedeo di Savoia Hospital— which specializes in the treatment of infectious diseases (treating 120 cases of tuberculosis each year) and is on the front line against the virus — is already short on the chemical reagents needed to carry out the specific test that allows workers to exclude the possibility of contagion in a patient.

Same story at Molinette, the other medical stronghold in Turin. In several emergency rooms, masks, gel and disinfectant are running out. Hospitals are beginning to ration all that is being requested, with increasing insistence, from suppliers. It is the primary concern of health and administrative officials. The 911 service doesn't have the swabs needed to carry out home visits ordered by the Piemonte region.

It all adds up to a widespread feeling that the worst is yet to come.

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