Italy’s coronavirus death rate is rising once again, with inoculation drives stumbling in the country and elsewhere in Europe.
Promises to vaccinate all Italians over 80 all by the end of March have fallen woefully short, amid well-documented interruptions of vaccine supplies and organisational shortfalls.
Just a third of Italy’s 7.3 million doses administered so far have gone to that age group, with more than half of those who carry memories of the Second World War still awaiting their first jab.
Dr Luca Lorini, head of intensive care at Bergamo’s Pope John XXIII Hospital, said: “We should have already finished with this.”
Italy’s new premier, Mario Draghi, pledged during a visit to Bergamo on Thursday that the vaccine campaign would be accelerated. His remarks came as he inaugurated a park to honour more than 104,000 who have died in Italy. Through to early March, two-thirds of those deaths have been among those over 80.
Mr Draghi said: “We are here to promise our elderly that it will never happen again that fragile people are not adequately helped and protected. Only like this will we respect those who have left us.”
Italy can boost its hopes for the future by looking to the UK, the first country in Europe to authorise widespread vaccinations.
More than 38% of the UK population has been inoculated since early December, starting with those over 70, health care workers and staff in care homes.
Britain, which leads Europe in terms of virus deaths, has seen the percentage of fatalities among those over 75 diminish from 75% of the total before the vaccination campaign to 64% in the week ending March 5.
Deaths across the UK have dropped from an average of 128 a day in the most recent seven-day period, from a high of 1,248 in the week ended January 20 – which is also thanks to lockdown measures.
Along with health care workers, Spain, France and Italy prioritized vaccinating residents of nursing homes, by far the single hardest-hit population in the spring surge.
They account for nearly a third of the dead in Italy’s first wave, and a third of France’s pandemic death toll of nearly 91,100.
In France, Covid-19 infections and deaths in care homes have been steadily trending downwards as the numbers of vaccinated has climbed, with 85% having received at least one jab.
Early signs are that the proportion of ICU patients aged 75 and older has also started to decline since February, with nearly half in this age group at least partially vaccinated.
The improved picture for residents of care homes comes despite a renewed worsening of France’s outbreak.
Spain has seen a huge drop in infections and deaths in nursing homes, following the first phase of its vaccination programme, with a significant decline in deaths.
In Italy, where vaccinations of nursing home residents got under way in January, compared with mid-February for other elderly, lower infection rates in nursing homes have been declared “an early success”.
“We cannot count it as a victory, absolutely not, of the vaccine strategy,” Dr Giovanni Rezza, director of infectious diseases at the Italian health ministry, acknowledged recently.
Dr Rezza said that officials aim to double the 200,000 daily vaccinations now that the AstraZeneca jab is being used again.
Its use was suspended briefly after reports of blood clots in some recipients of the vaccine, even though international health agencies urged governments to press ahead with the jab, saying the benefits outweighed the risks.
With Italy’s infection rate up for the seventh straight week propelled by the fast-moving UK variant, more than 2.5 million Italians over 80 are awaiting their jabs. Worse still, many have no indication when they might get them.
Italy’s aim is to vaccinate 80% of the population by September, and Mr Draghi has appointed an army general to relaunch the campaign.