Deadly second wave of COVID-19 could hit in July
A resurgent second wave of coronavirus could sweep across Italy with deaths “far greater” in some areas which have already suffered from the virus outbreak.
The gains made from painful lockdowns could be “rapidly reversed” in just weeks with deaths peaking again in July, a new report has stated.
Almost 30,000 people have died in Italy, the first European country to be majorly afflicted by COVID-19.
Research by Imperial College London has predicted up to another 23,000 deaths in Italy if social distancing measures are loosened even a fraction. This week, millions of Italians have been allowed to return to work.
“The impact of COVID-19 on Italy has been tragic but the response taken to limit the impact of the disease has been successful and disease control has been substantively achieved,” Imperial College’s Dr Samir Bhatt said.
“Unfortunately, continued social distancing and other measures are required to prevent this success from being rapidly reversed and our work provides a warning against underestimating the importance of such sacrifice.”
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RELATED: Bergamo, Italy had 568 per cent rise in deaths during March
The analysis looked at three scenarios – continuing the lockdowns, a 20 per cent return to pre-lockdown levels of movement and a 40 per cent return.
“In the absence of additional interventions, even a 20 per cent return to pre-lockdown mobility could lead to a resurgence in the number of deaths far greater than experienced in the current wave in several regions,” the report stated.
“Future increases in the number of deaths will lag behind the increase in transmission intensity and so a second wave will not be immediately apparent.”
It’s thought the first case of COVID-19 was brought to Italy in early January but the infection’s spread remained undetected until late February. As such, it could take around two months for the virus to build which points to a second wave in July.
INFECTION RATES STILL LOW
A key issue facing Italy is that despite its death toll, relatively few people outside of a few areas have contracted coronavirus meaning much of the population remains susceptible.
The researchers estimated that the Italian region with the highest rate of infection is Lombardy, centred on Milan, where around 13 per cent of residents may have had coronavirus in their system at some point. Almost 14,000 people died in Lombardy.
This relatively large infection rate should weaken a fresh surge there. If mobility increased by 20 per in Lombardy, deaths are likely to remain at a low level. But under a 40 per cent scenario between 500 and 2000 extra deaths could occur.
However, the deadliest surge could come in regions that had fewer recent fatalities.
Piedmont, which includes Turin and borders Lombardy, has recorded around 3000 deaths with about 8 per cent of the population infected.
With a slight loosening of the lockdown, Piedmont can expect to see 1300 new deaths. With 40 per cent more movement, up to 8700 people could die.
Tuscany and Veneto could also be badly hit by a new wave. Veneto’s could see as many as 6600 new deaths, more than four times the current COVID-19 toll of 1500 victims. At a future peak in early July, Veneto could be recording four to seven times the weekly deaths that took place in March.
Lazio, the region that includes the capital Rome, could go from 500 current to 3300 new deaths in a worst-case scenario.
Across Italy, around 4000 more deaths could occur if mobility upped by 20 per cent. With a doubling of movement, between 10,000 and 23,000 Italians could die.
“The reason deaths rebound to such a large extent is driven by a large number of ongoing infections. If more time is spent under current lockdown mobility levels before increases occur, the number of deaths averted is likely to be considerably lower in both scenarios,” the report stated.
“COVID-19 has been successfully controlled across Italy but the virus is still in circulation and the epidemic is not over,” Imperial College’s Dr Ilaria Dorigatti said.
The academics conceded that their projections were “pessimistic”. Social distancing measures, enhanced community surveillance, testing and tracing as well as the isolation of those who are infected could all dampen any increase in cases and deaths.
But they also said people limiting movements to just 40 per cent of pre-COVID levels could be a “conservative scenario”. If Italians began socialising and moving around at even greater levels, transmission and deaths could increase beyond their estimates.
“Our results suggest that transmission, as well as mobility, need to be closely monitored in the future weeks and months.”
Yesterday, the UK overtook Italy as the European nation to have recorded the most deaths from the virus.
However, a surge in so-called “excess deaths” in Italy beyond those attributed to COVID-19 has fuelled speculation the country may have underestimated its coronavirus fatalities.
The Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) has released new data examining the number of “excess deaths” Italy suffered during the period from February 20 to the end of March, when the pandemic overwhelmed hospitals and forced residents into lockdown.
During those weeks, deaths across the country were 39 per cent higher than the average over the previous five years. Instead of the 65,592 deaths you would expect in an average year, there were 90,946 deaths this time.
Some places were hit particularly hard. The city of Bergamo, located northeast of Milan, saw deaths rise by a staggering 568 per cent.
That could mean the official Italian death toll missed thousands of coronavirus victims.