Bergamo, from 'ground zero' to a city immune to the coronavirus

The Italian city was among the most affected in the world during the first wave

No one in Bergamo has been able to forget the army trucks loaded with coffins that passed through the city one night in March, after the local crematorium ovens collapsed. It is the image of the pandemic in Italy, and it is burned into the memory of the inhabitants of this city, ground zero of the coronavirus in Europe.

More than eight months later, while the second wave devours southern Italy, Bergamo, with 242 positive cases in the last 24 hours, records fewer infections compared to other regions, but also compared to other provinces in Lombardy, which has - once again – been one of the worst hit areas, with more than a third of the total deaths in the country. A dramatic figure that does not decrease, and that this Thursday broke a new record with 993 deaths, the highest number since the start of the pandemic.

"During the first wave, Bergamo was the territory which was hit the hardest by the virus, which means that, from an epidemiological point of view, it now has a certain collective immunity", explains Dr. Alberto Zucchi, head of Epidemiology of the city’s Sanitary Service. "Technically", he clarifies, "one cannot speak of herd immunity, because that means that the contagion has reached 80-90% of the population, but we are at very high levels».

A study by the Mario Negri Institute of Bergamo indicates that the Lombard city has been one of the most affected by the coronavirus in the world, with a prevalence of positive cases higher than that of New York (19.9%), London (17, 5%) or Madrid (11.3%). This has occurred despite the fact that researchers estimate that about 90% of infections were not diagnosed by the Italian health system. According to the research, 38.5% of the 423 volunteers who underwent a PCR or a test to detect antibodies in May were positive. In some small towns in the Seriana Valley, such as Nembro and Alzano, where fifty people died a day in spring, one in two citizens turns out to have been in contact with the virus.

Pietro Brambillasca, anesthetist at the Juan XXIII hospital in Bergamo, remembers the tsunami of the first wave: On March 29, 499 admissions due to Covid-19 were registered and three days later, 94 people entered the ICU. All this in a health center with 900 beds. “In the month of March, the patients who came to our hospital were in a very serious condition. Currently the situation is a little better, perhaps because the population has suffered personally, and therefore it knows how to behave, or perhaps because there is a partial immunity to the virus, which we are not able to measure and which has not been demonstrated, because antibodies can last a short time”, he points out.

Brambillasca acknowledges that the virus in Bergamo "circulates much less compared to the western part of the region and around two thirds of the beds are occupied by patients from other provinces". In spring, about 5,000 people from Bergamo were admitted to hospitals outside the province, and even outside of Lombardy. Now, ambulances with Covid patients from Milan transport the sick directly to Lodi, Cremona or Bergamo.

The possible immunity of the towns and cities that registered the most victims in spring has allowed them to keep the curve at bay in autumn, but experts do not underestimate the psychological factor of those who experienced the toughest months of the pandemic personally.

“In summer, my wife and I went on vacation to a city in central Italy for a week, and we were surprised that almost no one wore a mask and everyone went to the restaurant as if nothing had happened. It was like being in a country that had not experienced a pandemic”, says Dr. Zucchi. "When I told other people that in Bergamo the army had had to remove the coffins because there was no room in the cemeteries, they looked at me as if I were explaining a movie».

The expert, who went through Covid-19 in spring, argues that the city has maintained "strict respect" for anti-contagion measures because practically everyone has lost someone close or knows someone who has been seriously infected. "Fear and dramatic life experiences lead to increased attention, and this has contributed to maintaining the spread of the virus much more during the second wave».

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