Italy allows suspended anti-vax doctors to return to work

Italian heathcare staff suspended over their refusal to be vaccinated against Covid-19 can now return to work, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni confirmed on Monday.

Italy allows suspended anti-vax doctors to return to work
A woman holds a banner reading "My body, I decide" during a protest against Ita’s vaccination rules in January 2022. The new government’s decision to allow unvaccinated healthcare staff back to work marks a victory for anti-vax activists, say opponents. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Italy become the first country in Europe to make it obligatory for healthcare workers to be vaccinated, ruling in 2021 that they must have the jab or be transferred to other roles or suspended without pay.

That obligation had been set to expire in December, but was brought forward to Tuesday due to “a shortage of medical and health personnel”, Health Minister Orazio Schillaci said.

READ ALSO: Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Italy was the first European country to be hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and has since registered nearly 180,000 deaths.

Schillaci first announced the plan to scrap the rule on Friday in a statement saying data showed the virus’ impact on hospitals  “is now limited”.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

Meloni said the move, which has been criticised by the centre-left as a win for anti-vax campaigners, would mean some 4,000 healthcare workers can return to work.

This includes some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination, according to records at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy party railed against the way Mario Draghi’s government handled the pandemic, when it was the main opposition party, and she promised to use her first cabinet meetings to mark a clear break in policies with her predecessor.

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How to get a Covid booster jab in Italy this autumn

Italy's autumn Covid vaccine booster campaign is now underway, along with its seasonal flu jabs rollout.

How to get a Covid booster jab in Italy this autumn

The updated Covid vaccine is now available across Italy’s regions, with over nine million doses due to arrive in the country by the end of November.

The first jabs were available in some regions from the start of October: Lazio started its campaign on Monday, October 2nd, while Friuli Venezia Giulia’s launched a few days earlier on September 29th.

As healthcare is managed on a regional level in Italy, each region has its own start date and booking procedure.

The boosters are particularly recommended for over-60s, those who are immunosuppressed or pregnant, and healthcare workers, though jabs may be available to others on request.

The campaign aims to prevent a seasonal spike in infections, with vaccines targeting the new Eris variant as well as new winter flu viruses.

Which vaccines are available?

According to the latest health ministry circular, the government’s Covid booster campaign uses Pfizer and BioNTech’s monovalent Comirnaty vaccine targeting Omicron XBB 1.5, otherwise known as Kraken.

The European Medicines Agency has said the vaccine is also effective against other variants including Eris (EG.5.1), which as of late September had become the dominant strain in Italy at 43.5 percent, according to ISS data.

“Eris is one of the viral forms we are seeing and I am pleased to announce that the latest approved vaccines also protect against variants in circulation, including Eris,” EMA director Emer Cooke reportedly said in a recent press conference on respiratory diseases.

The EMA has said the vaccine is effective against new variants.

The EMA has said the vaccine is effective against new variants. Photo by MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP.

Who are they for?

The health ministry says the campaign is particularly aimed at the following groups:

  • Over-60s
  • Residents of care facilities
  • People who are pregnant or breastfeeding
  • Health and social care workers
  • People of any age with underlying health conditions

Vaccines are also recommended for caregivers, family members, and anyone who lives with a medically vulnerable person.

Anyone who doesn’t fall into any of these these categories but would still like to get a Covid booster can access one on request, subject to availability.

Administration of the booster is recommend six months from the last dose or from the last known Covid infection (as confirmed by testing).

A single dose of the adapted vaccine is also recommended for those who have not yet received any Covid vaccines. For children aged six months to four years who have not yet been vaccinated or infected with Covid, three doses are recommended, each several weeks apart.

How to get the booster

Your first step should be to visit the government’s vaccine booking website and see how the campaign is being conducted in your region (under ‘Prenota vaccino’).

Italy’s healthcare system operates on a regional rather than a national level, so getting a booster in Emilia-Romagna will be a different process to getting one in Lombardy.

In Lazio, for example, priority will be awarded in the first instance to health and social care workers and residents of care homes. The vaccine will be offered to over-80s and the medically vulnerable from October 16th, and other categories from October 30th.

If you can’t see the information you need on your regional authority’s website, it’s a good idea to contact your family doctor or local pharmacist to see what they can tell you about accessing the jab.

With Italy’s previous Covid vaccination campaigns, the websites for most regional health authorities have required patients to input their tessera sanitaria (national health card) and codice fiscale (tax code) numbers in order to make an online booking.

That means that if you don’t have one, you’ll likely need to make a phone call to either your regional health authority.

In the past, readers of The Local reported being able to book an appointment for a Covid vaccine by phone using only their codice fiscale number after explaining the situation (you’ll need the help of an Italian speaker if you don’t speak Italian).

As Italy’s Covid booster campaign is being rolled out alongside its seasonal flu jab campaign, you should be able to get both shots at the same time.

The Covid situation in Italy

According to the latest weekly bulletin from Italy’s National Health Institute (ISS), the number of Covid cases in Italy has increased over the past few weeks, with 38,775 new cases recorded between September 21st-27th, but the infection rate is slowing.

As of the week ending September 27th, the Rt (transmission rate) in Italy was 0.9, below the epidemic threshold,  and the numbers of hospitalisations and of Covid patients in intensive care is also low and stable, the data shows.

However the risk to older members of the population and people with underlying health conditions who become infected remains “severe”, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warns.

“Vaccination saves lives, decreases the chances of being infected and reduces the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and influenza,” ECDC director Andrea Ammon said in a recent press release encouraging uptake of the vaccines.

Find more information about Italy’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign on the Italian health ministry’s website.