The new far-right government in Italy wants to turn the page on COVID-19 management. On November 1, new Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni decreed in her first package of government measures an end of the COVID vaccine mandate for healthcare workers. Moreover, the daily publication of the COVID-19 pandemic bulletin, with raw data of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, has been suspended. During the government’s first press conference, the new minister of health, Orazio Schillaci, said, “The disease is different, we need to start a gradual return to normality in activities and behaviors.” He is also considering reducing the quarantine period for patients who test positive ― currently 5 days ― as well as the number of swab tests.
“Science must not be approached ideologically, but with scientific evidence that supports the measures,” Meloni said at the same press conference. “Countless measures have been taken in the past that were not based on scientific evidence.”
Meloni’s party, Brothers of Italy, has always been very critical of the draconian measures taken by her predecessors ― lockdowns, mandatory vaccination, and the green pass (a certificate required by all workers as well as for attending cultural and sports events, engaging in long-distance travel and nightlife, and going to restaurants).
In February 2020, Italy was the first country in the Western world to be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. It had one of the highest death rates in the world as well as the most restrictive measures in Europe, with devastating economic and social consequences. In 2021, Italy was also the first country in Europe to impose mandatory vaccination against COVID-19 for healthcare workers. The government ruled that healthcare workers should be vaccinated or be transferred to other roles or suspended without payment. The extreme measure was to expire in December, but the expiration date was brought forward to November 1 because of “a shortage of medical and health personnel,” Schillaci said. Because of the government decision, several thousand unvaccinated healthcare workers will now be able to work again in Italy.
“Paradoxically, the decision to reintegrate healthcare professionals who have evaded the vaccination obligation appears just as an ideological and scientifically unsustainable stance,” comments Pierluigi Lopalco, professor of hygiene at the University of Salento, who thinks that the decree is a mere political move and is not going to solve the long-lasting problem of a shortage of doctors.
“Indeed, scientific evidence has shown that it is thanks to vaccination that we have been able to mitigate the impact of the pandemic up to now in terms of lethality and occupancy of hospital beds, as well as limiting infections,” adds Lopalco.
Healthcare experts also think that there is a risk of sending the misleading message that vaccinating is useless, since the vaccine is not mandatory even for healthcare professionals. According to Filippo Anelli, president of the National Federation of Surgeons and Dentists, there is also a deontologic problem: the doctor who refuses a professional obligation performs an act that contrasts with the profession.
Furthermore, the interruption of the pandemic bulletin, which from now on will be made public on a weekly basis, was not very welcome by the healthcare experts.
“This is not for the benefit of citizens, institutions and the media,” comments Nino Cartabellotta, founder of Gimbe Foundation, a nonprofit healthcare organization. He thinks that it is unacceptable that daily public access to the data, which fueled a virtuous process of collaboration between researchers, civil society, and institutions, is now banned by the Ministry of Health and that it is an anachronistic step backward on transparency.
“Apparently, reading the daily data reminds public opinion of the state of emergency, and this would hinder the return to normality. But if the lack of information is the norm, then normality is a problem,” backs Stefania Salmaso, epidemiologist in Rome.
Experts stress that when citizens are asked to adopt preventive behaviors, maximum transparency should be guaranteed. And today it is even more important: at this stage, few measures are taken from above, and the focus is mainly on individual awareness. According to epidemiologists, it is not only a matter of generating statistics; daily raw data are also crucial for making timely decisions and identifying areas of improvement.
“With such a fast-spreading virus like SARS-CoV-2, we have learned that you often have to change your strategy in a matter of days,” says Salmaso.
“We cannot declare by fiat that the pandemic is over,” comments Lopalco, who believes instead that it is possible to change the way of communicating on the virus, since the emergency is over.
“The data, however, must remain accessible, and it is time to aim for a series of public health actions, not political positions.” Italy has led among EU countries in the number of vaccinated people, and Lopalco and colleagues would like to see a revamping in the vaccination campaign management, which lost vigor during the political election campaigns over the summer. Epidemiologists also think that authorities and experts should work together to prepare a plan for the next possible waves.
In his first meeting with the media on November 11, Schillaci reassured the journalists that the Ministry of Health is working on a vaccination campaign to relaunch vaccinations against COVID-19 and flu together.
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