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.

For the coming weeks, Worldcrunch will be delivering daily updates on the coronavirus global pandemic. Our network of multilingual journalists are busy finding out what's being reported locally — everywhere — to provide as clear a picture as possible of what it means for all of us at home, around the world. To receive the daily brief in your inbox, sign up here.

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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