When Antonia Mortensen was pulled over by police while driving recently in Milan, the northern Italian city where she is staying, it wasn’t for a traffic offense. It was to instruct her fellow passenger to sit in the back of the car and to check that both were wearing face masks.
“We were told we cannot both sit in the front,” said the CNN journalist, who was on her way to hospital with her partner to visit a sick relative.
Such are the tight restrictions on Italians now living in the deadliest hotspot of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Italy’s death toll is now the highest in the world at 10,023. Fatalities passed the grim milestone on Saturday, with an increase of 889 since the last figures were released on Friday, according to Italy’s Civil Protection Agency.
With 92,472 confirmed cases, Italy appears to have the highest death rate on the planet. Compare it to China, the epicenter of the pandemic, which has a roughly similar number of confirmed cases at 81,997, but under a third as many deaths, at 3,299, according to Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.
Indeed Italy now has the second-highest number of confirmed cases in the world after the United States, which stands at 105,470. But the US has a fraction of the deaths, at just over 1,700.
As Italy enters its sixth week of restrictions, many are asking: why does its death rate seem so much higher than other countries?
Experts say it’s down to a combination of factors, like the country’s large elderly population which is more susceptible to the virus, and the method of testing that’s not giving the full picture about infections.
Italy’s number of confirmed cases is “not representative of the entire infected population,” said Dr. Massimo Galli, head of the infectious disease unit at Sacco Hospital in Milan. The real figure was “much much more.”
Only the most severe cases are being tested, added Galli, and not the entire population — which in turn, skews the death rate.
A major obstacle for health workers carrying out tests, was limited protective gear available, he said.
In a stark warning to other countries, Galli said: “We have a national healthcare system that works very well, especially in Lombardy — but even our system has been hit by this.
“Miracles have been done in multiplying the numbers of beds in hospitals,” said the health expert. But medicine “has been lacking — and this is a big problem that will be felt by other countries.”
Elderly at risk
Another factor in the seemingly high death rate is Italy’s elderly population, which is the largest in the world behind Japan.
The average age of Italian patients who have died after testing positive for the virus was 78, the country’s Health Institute said Friday.
Galli said that until now, Italy’s public healthcare system was able to keep a lot of elderly people with pre-existing medical conditions alive.
But these patients were in “a really fragile situation that can be broken by a virus like coronavirus,” he added.
Still, there have been some stories of hope. Like 102-year-old Italica Grondona, who recovered from coronavirus in the northern city of Genoa after spending more than 20 days in hospital, doctors who treated the woman and her nephew told CNN.