Covid vaccinations in Italy rolling out slowly but I got mine
La Nuvola is Rome’s answer to modern architectural marvels, a bookend to the legendary monuments this city built 2,000 years ago. Known formerly as the Nuovi Centro Congressi (New Congress Center), it is a gargantuan glass cube made up of 592,000 square feet of convention space. Built from 2008-16, it was awarded the 2012 Best Building Site by London’s Royal Institute of British Architects. It covers an entire city block along Via Cristoforo Colombo, the main drag of l’EUR, Benito Mussolini’s ill-fated planned neighborhood honoring fascist architecture.
I came here Thursday as part of Italy’s plan to catch up on the Covid vaccination scoreboard. Since Pres. Biden’s election in November, I’ve sat in my Rome apartment reading my American friends’ accounts of their vaccinations, their feelings of freedom, of their optimism for America’s return to the old normal.
Meanwhile, in Rome I remained in the dark. I turned 65 last month, well into the threshold of high-risk Covid targets, and I had no idea when my vaccination would come. My Italian landlord and my doctor, both of whom are my age, had no clue, either. The vaccine rollout in Europe and, thus, Italy has been woefully slow. Cautious European Union scientists slow to pull the trigger on vaccines. Faulty supply lines. A blockade on the AstraZeneca vaccine after fears it was tied to blood clots and death. They all combined to leave us waiting behind closed doors as Italy locks down again under a third wave with a new virus that’s deadlier than the first.
Every day I read Il Messaggero, Rome’s newspaper, hoping my age bracket would be announced. It was no small relief when I finally read April 5 that I could make a vaccine appointment starting the next night at midnight. Even that came with trepidation. After all, this is Rome where we still stand in line for an hour to pay electric bills. I’d heard stories of the vaccination websites crashing, of callers on hold for an hour.
However, I slept on it, went online the next morning and shockingly received an appointment for the next afternoon. It took me 60 seconds. In dysfunctional Rome, that’s the equivalent of escaping unscathed from your train hitting a semi. Maybe Rome had turned the vaccination corner. Maybe the old normal wasn’t much farther than the 30-minute bus ride I took to La Nuvola.
My vaccination could not have gone smoother if the Mayo Clinic organized it. I took the electric ramp down to the building’s first level where I found no line, and a bank of receptionists directed me to a massive waiting room. I sat at a table and filled out a medical form before an elderly nurse sat with me to warn me of the possible side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine I was about to receive: headache, fever, shakes. Funny, she didn’t mention the blood clots.
I went into another room big enough for a small basketball arena where all of us 65-year-olds waited for a doctor to come around and jab us. The slim, young doctor came to me and said, “Non ti preoccupi. Non ti preoccupi. Io faccio. Io faccio. (Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I do it. I do it.) Ignoring my constant self-consciousness of feeling like a tourist, I asked if I could take a selfie. His nurse, instead, happily took my camera and shot me as the doctor gave me a shot I could barely feel.
I then took my number to the final bank of receptionists who marked off my name. Feeling giddy. I asked the woman, “Can I eat anything tonight?”
“Can I drink wine?”
She gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“Can I have sex?”
“That’s odd. I couldn’t have sex before.”
(I made up that last part.)
However, the point is I got in and out of there in 30 minutes. My second injection is June 25, which hopefully will be about the time Italy opens back up again. I have not left Italy in 14 months.
Europe’s bleak vaccination situation
My American friends all wrote me about the relief they felt after their vaccination. They feel safe. They feel free. I didn’t share that same euphoria. Maybe it’s because they live in a country with 4 percent of the world’s population and 20 percent of the deaths.
I haven’t lived with fear. I wear my mask everywhere, even to take out the trash. Everyone in Rome wears masks. We’re in our second extended lockdown where bars and restaurants are closed except for takeout and delivery. Museums are closed. Sports events are closed. Social distancing is practiced. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. I’ve always felt low risk.
However, the vaccination situation in Europe and Covid vaccinations in Italy concern me. Vaccinations are no good unless you get them to the people and until people get vaccinated the world can’t return to the one I miss in Rome: Dining in dimly lit cobblestone alleyways. Raucous parties on my balcony overlooking the green Monteverde neighborhood. Racing to the airport for a weekend getaway to Paris.
Right now, Italy is still playing catch up. As of Sunday, only 13 million in Italy have received the first dose. Only 3.9 million are fully vaccinated. That’s only 6.5 percent of a population of 60 million. Meanwhile, in the U.S. where Biden greased the skids on the rollout as soon as he took office, 187 million have received the first dose. Nearly 73 million have been fully vaccinated, equaling 22 percent of a population of 320 million.
Italy, once the guiding light on handling the pandemic, has seemingly swapped places with the U.S. on the competency meter.
It started when the EU took nearly two weeks longer to approve its vaccines than the U.S. and the United Kingdom did. The EU also had delays establishing vaccine contracts.
But a barbed wire hurdle erected with the AstraZeneca scare. The British-Swedish vaccine was administered around Italy and people in seven different regions mysteriously developed blood clots and died. Italy immediately joined 10 other European countries in blocking AZ.
European Union scientists reexamined the vaccine and ruled they found no connection between AZ and the deaths. Italy and the other countries lifted the blockade but in the meantime, 200,000 people in Italy missed their vaccinations.
AZ remains an issue here. Eight out of 10 Sicilians refuse to take it, according Sicily president Nello Musumeri. Yet the European Medical Agency said of 25 million AZ injections, only 86 resulted in blood clots and 18 were fatal. Most were women under 60.
While the EU refuses to directly link AZ to the deaths, Italy announced last week that AZ would only be administered to those 60 and over. Other countries followed suit. The countries ruled that the benefits outweigh the risks while the risks were slightly higher for those younger.
In other words, we old guys are expendable? Grazie, Italia!
Yes, people are scared and Italian officials are concerned. Franco Locatelli, Italy’s top scientific coronavirus advisor, told La Stampa newspaper, “I say that we are offering a vaccine that is safe and effective which people must accept. That said, if we find ourselves facing a disarming number of defections, we will reconsider the issue.”
Myself? Not worried. AstraZeneca boasts an effectiveness of 76 percent. Johnson & Johnson, the United States’ one-jab wonder, is listed at only 67 percent. Seven-six percent is not 100 percent but if I have three chances of four to beat away Covid-19, I’ll take my chances against the last 24 percent.
I lived in Las Vegas for 10 years. I know odds.
Protests in Italy
Unfortunately, many in this world do not. One friend isn’t getting vaccinated because she never has Covid symptoms and besides, people who are dying are old people with underlying conditions. Huh? First, tens of thousands of victims are not old. Second, those with underlying conditions would be still alive without Covid. That’s like saying a guy with a heart condition gets hit by a truck and his cause of death is listed as his heart condition.
One reader said she won’t get vaccinated because no one knows what the vaccines’ effects will be in 5, 10, 15 years. Maybe not, but they do know the effects of Covid today: nearly 3 million dead worldwide and nearly 115,000 in Italy, a higher death rate than even the U.S.
It’s time we ended this seemingly eternal hell. Italians are starting to lose their sweet disposition. Numerous protests have popped up around the country. One turned ugly last week outside the Lower House in Rome, and on Monday 200 protestors clashed with riot police preventing them from approaching the prime minister’s office.
Shopkeepers in Naples used a softer strategy yet created more notoriety. More than 150 of them took to the streets brandishing women’s underwear in protest of how the lockdown has affected businesses. The underwear is strategic. The Italian government had ruled women’s underwear is an “essential item” (After all, this is Italy) and businesses selling it can remain open. Thus, numerous businesses are starting to sell lingerie.
Next time in Naples, check out Guido’s Bar & Brassieres.
Said Carla della Corte, head of the local Confommercio retailers’ lobby, to Corriere della Sera newspaper, “Underwear is a way to survive.”
The normally cautious health officials are trying to soothe tempers with specks of optimism. EU vaccine chief Thierry Breton told Le Parisien newspaper he believes Europe will achieve herd immunity by mid-July. He pointed out that 14 million vaccines were distributed in January, 28 million in February and 60 million in March. He expects 100 million in April, May and June, 120 million over the summer and 200 million by September.
Here in Italy, we will remain in lockdown through April and there is no announced escape plan beyond that. Italy even imposed a mandatory five-day quarantine upon the return from any EU country. Not that I would go anywhere. Nearly all the other EU countries are closed, too. I’m not going to Paris and live off street crepes. Paris even has a 7 p.m. curfew.
Numbers looking up
But things are improving. While Italy’s intensive care units nearly reached a new high capacity last week, our number of active cases has dropped from 582,327 on March 21 to 524,417 on Monday. Mariastella Gelmini, Italy’s minister of affairs and autonomies, says she hopes Italy will be back to normal by May. A more realistic target is June 2, Republic Day, the national holiday celebrating the formation of a new government after World War II, marking the end of fascism.
I’ll take June. I must rebook cancelled 2020 trips to Spain, Germany and Greece plus I have a pending reservation for the Maldives and a confirmed booking for Mallorca in November. Hell, right now I’d take a pizza near Piazza Navona.
In the meantime, I’ll stay home and rifle through more cookbooks while waiting for my second vaccination in 10 weeks. My AZ experience was wonderful. My lone side effect was a headache all the next day.
I’m hoping this is the start of Italy’s return to the land I’m tied to by my heart and not by chains.