© Reuters. An Italian nursing home during the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)
By Emilio Parodi
MILAN (Reuters) – Italy's nursing homes hit by the coronavirus pandemic that killed thousands of people are under financial pressure that could put many out of business and trigger a new crisis in elderly care.
Given the rising costs of the pandemic and the introduction of nursing homes in regions such as Lombardy, the epicenter of the outbreak of the Italian corona virus, nursing home operators say that many may not survive without government assistance.
"In October we have to file for bankruptcy if something doesn't happen that enables us to fill empty beds and we don't get help with the extraordinary costs that we have covered," said Walter Montini, director of a 30 care association Houses in the Cremona area.
"Instead of taking in new residents, we have to send people home to their families."
The COVID 19 outbreak has hit nursing homes hard since the disease first appeared in Lombardy in late February. Many have been told to admit patients with this condition to relieve the region's overcrowded hospitals despite the lack of protective equipment.
"We were all under great pressure from the Lombardy regional government to admit COVID patients. We were finished," said Mariuccia Rossini, head of the Agespi industry association.
Lombardy government officials say only nursing homes with separate buildings or floors that could be reserved for coronavirus patients on the road to recovery were asked to take them.
Although there are no exact mortality rates due to test problems, a survey by the Italian top health institute Istituto Superiore di Sanita among 577 nursing homes found that 1,483 COVID-19-like symptoms out of 3,859 deaths in February and March.
With one of the oldest populations in Europe, Italy relies heavily on nursing homes to help families care for older relatives. Industry associations currently estimate the waiting list for places at around 100,000.
Diego Lorenzi said his 88-year-old mother, who has severe dementia, has been on a waiting list for a year. Although he said he had long refused to take care of her, he and his sisters could not do it.
"It is impossible for us to treat such an illness. My family and my two sisters can no longer do it. I have asked so many houses in Bergamo and the answer is the same everywhere: No."
The crisis could have a significant economic impact as the sector employs approximately 185,000 people and, according to industry associations, has annual sales of approximately € 13 billion ($ 14.16 billion).
Daniela Dolci, manager of Residenza Guerreschi, a private operator near Cremona, said blocking new admissions was "really harmful".
"We are a completely private structure, we can only support ourselves with the fees paid by our guests. And we can only pay our employees if all 40 of our seats are filled."
Aside from the homes where coronavirus patients were admitted, nursing homes have been banned from accepting new arrivals since the beginning of the crisis when they were banned to protect vulnerable residents.
Discussions are currently underway with regional authorities to try to resolve the crisis and allow homes to accommodate new residents as soon as security problems are resolved.
Franco Massi, chairman of Uneba, a national association representing approximately 1,000 households, said widespread testing, increased staffing, and adequate protective equipment and treatment needed to be ensured.
"This will cost more, so there must be adequate funding," he said.
If the problem is not resolved, an impending crisis in social care can contribute to the health problems caused by the corona virus.
Giorgio Ferrami from Casalbuttano near Cremona said his 86-year-old mother had a stroke in January and was recently treated in an intensive care unit after a fall at home.
"She'll be out in a few days and since the nursing homes are closed, I don't know what we're going to do," he said. "She cannot eat alone, she is totally bedridden and needs constant health support."
($ 1 = 0.9181 euros)