BRESCIA — By last week, at the Chiari hospital in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, scenes were eerily reminiscent of one year ago. The facility that is between the cities of Bergamo and Brescia is the only nearby "dirty" hospital, using the doctors' jargon to refer to the hospitals dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

"We are at our limit," says Mauro Borelli, a general manager of public health service in the region. "Our availability is 110 beds — after we reach that, we'll have to close the specialized surgical wards." By late February, the number of patients hospitalized at the facility was nearing 100, one-third of whom were in sub-intensive therapy and attached to Continuous Positive Airway Pressure helmets. "The average age of our patients is 50 years old, and more than half are infected with the English variant of the virus," adds Borelli.

Some have begun to notice ominous similarities with the outbreak of a year ago, when these towns were the epicenter of the first wave of deaths that overwhelmed Europe. "On Feb. 23 2020, we were waiting for the decree that shut schools overnight. Today, exactly one year later, we are waiting for Lombardy to decide overnight to shut the schools," says Valentina Bergo, a council member for education at the municipality of Rovato, a town of about 19,000 on the border between the provinces of Bergamo and Brescia.

Once again, this is the area of Italy where the virus is accelerating the quickest, all the way up to the city of Brescia.

Some of the tables of the bars of Piazza Cavour, the main square of Rovato, are still busy. At 6 pm, the fateful mandatory closing time, had not struck yet. "These are the last hours of freedom before a new lockdown," a lady says.

"Nothing has changed in one year. Nothing has been learned," says Bergo. "We are still at square one, putting towns under lockdown and telling people they can't go on with their lives. The light at the end of the tunnel is the vaccine — whenever it arrives."

"More than a third wave, I would say this is a first wave that never really ended."

For weeks, the data has not offered much hope in the biggest province in Lombardy, and the most populated after Milan, with more than 1.2 million people in more than 200 towns. The province had more than 20,000 new infections since the start of the year — 506 in the last 24 hours before Feb. 24, and an average of some 378 per day.

But the data doesn't tell the whole story: on top of the rising numbers, here and in other towns around Bergamo, the new coronavirus variants are everywhere.

"In this area, the virus variants, mostly the ‘English' one, make up 39% of all new coronavirus cases," Lombardy authorities announced when they decided to introduce the new restrictions.

Guido Bertolaso, an advisor to Lombardy on how to deal with the pandemic and vaccinate the population, added that this part of Lombardy was "facing the third wave". He promised a review of regional strategies to prioritize these the worst-hit areas, in the region's vaccine rollout.

"More than a third wave, I would say this is a first wave that never really ended," says Borelli. "In a year, local hospitals never went down to less than 40 hospitalized patients. The specialized Covid wards were never closed."

In Flero, 25 kilometers southeast of Rovato, Mayor Pietro Alberti, 63, spent 10 days intubated in intensive care in March. He is ready to tell his citizens that a new sacrifice is needed. "To say that we are satisfied with the umpteenth lockdown, no — but if it's necessary, we are ready for this sacrifice," he says. "Of course, Bertolaso has promised us the vaccines and now we expect them to arrive."

Even in Brescia proper, there is an air of despair when, at 5.30 pm, regional authorities have not yet published the new restrictions. In his pastry shop, Iginio Massari watches a video of his nephew, who took off his face mask and threw it away after he learned that schools will close again.

"Now they have invented the ‘enhanced orange zone', but what does it mean?" he says. "Again, they are focusing on the people and not the disease. And, again, it is us shop owners who will pay the price."

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