Fabio De Iaco, president of the Italian Society of Emergency and Urgent Medicine (Simeu), sounded the alarm on Monday, saying hospital admissions have risen 50 percent since September.
“Flu and Covid are pushing emergency rooms to their limit,” said De Iaco, adding that he fears the problem “can only get worse in the coming weeks.”
Hospitals expect the peak to arrive during the holidays, “when we will have more elderly patients but also more staff off sick.”
The problem is mainly down to a sharp spike in seasonal flu cases, he said. This year’s flu wave began three weeks ago, around a month ahead of usual annual trends.
“We see numbers that pre-pandemic were reached in mid-January,” says De Iaco.
“Children began to arrive in the emergency room first, but now the age of patients is rising and will increase during the holidays, when viruses are typically passed between generations.”
Silvestro Scotti, general secretary of the Italian Federation of General Practitioners (Fimmg), told news outlets that Italy’s current seasonal flu case numbers are at their highest in 15 years.
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“Every week a family doctor has about 100 patients who fall ill, which translates into at least two to three calls per week for each one, plus visits and a lot of bureaucracy. We’re practically going crazy,” he said.
At the same time, hospitals are dealing with an influx of Covid patients. While the latest data from the Gimbe health think tank shows a slight decrease in new case numbers, both hospitalisations and intensive care admissions are up.
According to De Iaco, the symptoms of this flu variant (that many Italian outlets are calling the influenza australiana or the ‘Australian flu’) are similar to those for Covid, including a high fever and respiratory difficulties.
This can make it hard for doctors to immediately distinguish between the two, leading to Covid and flu patients mixing in the wards.
“Many arrive with flu symptoms in the emergency room and we discover that it is Covid only at the time of the test,” says De Iaco.
“And for those who test positive we have difficulty finding staff and a place for their isolation.”
He encouraged patients to stay at home and avoid going to the emergency room unless they were particularly vulnerable, warning that they “face long waits and risk becoming infected with other viruses.”
Doctors are appealing for those who are eligible to get vaccinated against the flu to avoid inundating hospitals.
“It is vital that those at risk choose to get vaccinated as soon as possible, otherwise we risk living through some very serious months,” said Fimmg secretary Scotti.