6 million coronavirus cases in Italy? A report says so and scientists agree

Ruggerdo De Maria of Rome’s Gemelli Policlinico hospital says it could be May before the number of cases becomes manageable.

I went to bed Monday night feeling pretty good about my adopted country. Italy, the epicenter of this vicious coronavirus, showed signs of recovery. The percentage of new cases had dropped four straight days and in a week had been cut in half. The percentage of daily deaths had dropped three straight days. I woke up Tuesday morning and read in Rome’s Il Messaggero that if the projections continued and people observed current protocol, the number of new cases in Rome’s Lazio region would be close to zero by April 16. Lombardy’s shell shocked society could be OK by April 22. Maybe in a little more than two weeks I could go out for a pizza, read in my park, drink a nice Cesanese in my favorite wine bar.

Then I called an expert and got scared again.

Ruggerdo De Maria is the vice-director of laboratory research at Gemelli Policlinico, one of four hospitals here in Rome handling patients with the virus’ Covid-19 disease. I brought up the numbers, such as only a 4.1-percent increase of new cases and 7.5-percent new deaths from the day before, both lows since Italy started tracking numbers Feb. 21.

“This data they show I don’t think matters at all,” he said. “They completely underestimated the real situation.”

Uh-oh. Admittedly exhausted, he went on.

“In Italy there should be 6 million people that are positive.”

Imperial College releases paper

I was horrified but not shocked. I’d read about this already. Last week, the Italian press quoted a few learned scientists and doctors who say the number of positive cases is way less than what is reported to the world. Monday night Italy reported the number of cases at 101,739, second most behind the United States’ 164,266. 

However, the Department of Infectious Diseases at London’s Imperial College, one of the world’s top research institutes, presented a 35-page report Monday that blew the ink off the widely accepted statistics. 

Using a complicated formula combining the number of infections, the number of deaths, the reproduction over time and the intervention introduced, the report on various European countries estimates that 9.8 percent of the population in Italy is infected. (Spain is 15 percent.) Italy’s population is 60 million. You do the math.

“People say something like 30 percent in some areas are positive,” De Maria said.

He echoed many sentiments I’ve read that the accepted statistics don’t include those who carry the virus but have no symptoms and, thus, have never been tested. They also don’t include those with mild symptoms and are self-quarantining at home.

I have not been tested. I asked De Maria if that means I could have the virus.

“Yes,” he said.

Day 24 of lockdown

Terrific. This is Day 24 of my lockdown. I last gathered with people on March 8. Italy’s government-mandated national lockdown, the first in the world, is scheduled to end Friday. Most expect Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to announce this week that he’ll extend the lockdown until Easter April 21. De Maria thinks April is too optimistic.

“I think probably in late May the number of cases will be manageable,” he said. “As soon as people realize that there are already millions of people in Italy who were infected, some will be concerned. They’ll realize that many are now immune and can have a normal life. This is something new. It’s difficult to predict.”

Rome’s coronavirus situation isn’t the war zone that is Lombardy which, as of Tuesday according to published statistics, has 41 percent (43,208) of Italy’s 105,792 cases and 58 percent (7,199) of the 12,428 deaths . Gemelli isn’t quite at capacity but still has 291 Covid-19 patients, 57 in intensive care. The problem is Gemelli is also a general hospital and the biggest trick is keeping the regular patients away from the highly infectious patients with Covid-19.

Across Rome at Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases, just up the hill from my apartment, they’re trying to develop a vaccine that could save the world.

“The problem is the people who tried to develop a vaccine for the other virus, SARS, some vaccines actually did not protect,” De Maria said. “They actually increased the severity of the infection.”

What happened?

How did we get here? The world is looking for guidance from Italy, which has nearly a third of the world’s deaths and responded faster than anyone in the western world. What happens to Italy may happen elsewhere. Americans, who shuddered as Pres. Trump sat asleep at the switch for a month, watch Italy’s numbers closer than stock reports.

Italy may have been the first to order a national lockdown and one of the first to cancel flights from China, but many officials say mistakes were made along the way.

“We probably underestimated the impact,” De Maria said. “Shutting down flights from China didn’t stop people from other countries. This was a mistake. We felt we were safe but we were not. Other countries that did not close flights were checking all the passengers from China.

“Second, we weren’t careful to be prepared in terms of protection. It’s impossible to get masks. That’s really unbelievable. We should’ve done what we’re doing now.”

Stay home

If this pandemic reaches a point where it will define a generation — forget only 2020 — what shall people do in the meantime? De Maria said everyone should wear masks and debunks all theories that they do not help. Wash your hands, of course. Avoid touching others.

The most important method was confirmed by a video I saw the other night. It showed Via Petroselli, a wide, busy road that helps connect the Tiber River to Centro Storico, taken at 7:30 p.m. In the 30-second video I didn’t see a single car. The center of Rome looked like an oil painting.

This is good.

“You should isolate everybody,” De Maria said. “The best measure will be to try and reduce the peaks and try to always have the spreading of the virus at levels that can be managed by those who have the ability to take care of their most severe patients. 

“Because you can’t stop completely the virus. Perhaps you can do it in China where you have a strong government and not a democracy and shut down completely and people are not even allowed to buy food. But in Western countries it’s really, very, very difficult to block the virus.”

Here’s hoping numbers really do lie. If not, all of us in Italy are going to have a lot of sleepless nights.