Were elderly Italians left to die? And is socialized health care to blame?

The claims: Italians over 80 will be ‘left to die,’ and that may be because of socialized health care

Various claims that Italians over the age of 80 would be “left to die” have surfaced within the past week on social media, with some posts saying the blame falls on Italy’s socialized health care system. 

Italy forced to prioritize health care resources

Italy’s COVID-19 fatality rate of 5% is higher than the global average of 3.5%. As the country’s confirmed cases continue to surge, health officials are scrambling to find adequate resources.

Despite a countrywide lockdown, Italy reached a grave milestone this week when the country’s death toll surpassed China’s — as of March 19, 3,405 people have died. 

Italy has an older population, with a median age of 47.3, compared to 38.3 in the United States. Older populations are much more susceptible to complications from COVID-19, and many of the reported deaths in Italy have been people in their 80s and 90s. 

The claims of Italy abandoning its elderly population began to surface following a report in the Telegraph about a document prepared by a crisis management unit in Turin, a northern Italian city hit hard by the virus. 

A man wearing a mask rides a scooter in Milan, Italy, March 11, 2020. Italy is mulling even tighter restrictions on daily life and has announced billions in financial relief to cushion economic shocks from the coronavirus.
A man wearing a mask rides a scooter in Milan, Italy, March 11, 2020. Italy is mulling even tighter restrictions on daily life and has announced billions in financial relief to cushion economic shocks from the coronavirus.

The document seen by the Telegraph is a guideline for if and when it “becomes impossible to provide all patients with intensive care service,” according to the news outlet, which did not publish a copy of it.

If the crisis reaches a point where health care access is too strained and needs to be limited, the document lays out plans for how to prioritize patients.

According to the Telegraph, the document’s criteria for intensive therapy in emergency cases includes an age of less than 80 or a score of less than five on the Charlson Comorbidity Index, which indicates a patient’s other medical conditions and mortality. 

Luigi Icardi, a councilor for health in Piedmont, told the Telegraph that he never wanted the crisis to reach this point, but that the document “will be binding and will establish, in the event of saturation of the wards, a precedence code for access to intensive care, based on certain parameters such as potential survival.”

Italy surpasses China in deaths.
Italy surpasses China in deaths.

Despite the tentative guidelines in the document, it is not true that Italy as a whole has decided not to treat their elderly for the coronavirus.

The truth is, instead, that overwhelmed Italian health officials are planning for the worst, given the recent influx of cases and lack of available resources. If cases continue to surge, officials might be forced to prioritize care for those with “the best chance of success” and the “best hope of life.”

Is socialized health care to blame? 

The second part of the claim that stemmed from the Telegraph report blamed Italy’s socialized health care for the lack of available resources and went viral on Facebook.

One person who posted that claim and saw it go viral, Gene Ballinger, did not respond to request for comment.

Throughout the pandemic, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has remained consistent on his health care promises for all Italians. 

“We live in a system in which we guarantee health and the right of everyone to be cured. It’s a foundation, a pillar, and I’d say a characteristic of our system of civilization,” Conte said in a public statement on March 9. “And thus, we can’t allow ourselves to let our guard down.” 

Health care officials in China were faced with a similar dilemma when the number of cases surpassed the capability of the existing treatment options. As hospitals in China became overwhelmed, patients were forced to wait extended periods of time for treatment. 

In the U.S., health care is not socialized. But officials across the country are preparing to face the same dilemma seen in Italy as cases continue to multiply and available resources deplete. 

A new Harvard analysis reveals that hospitals throughout the United States will not have enough beds for patients if the virus continues to spread and capacity is not adequately expanded. 

According to the analysis, in 40% of markets around the country, hospitals will not be able to make enough room for all patients who fall ill from the coronavirus. 

Medical staff work at one of the emergency structures that were set up to ease procedures at the Brescia hospital in northern Italy, March 16, 2020.
Medical staff work at one of the emergency structures that were set up to ease procedures at the Brescia hospital in northern Italy, March 16, 2020.

This statistic reflects a “moderate” scenario by the analysis team’s standards and assumes 40% of adults will become infected with the virus over the next 12 months.

These numbers are not exact and do not take into account various efforts from hospitals across the country including sending home patients with less critical conditions. 

The global push for social distancing, self-isolation and self-quarantine is a preemptive effort to prevent overwhelming health care systems. 

The longer the disease takes to spread, the more time hospitals have to accommodate patients. In the United States, officials are attempting to “flatten the curve” and not overwhelm the health care system by closing businesses and schools and canceling large events.

Blaming Italy’s socialized health care system for the lack of available resources doesn’t hold up because nonsocialized health care systems, such as those in the United States, are facing similar shortages. 

Our ruling: False

While some Italian health officials are planning for the worst, the health care prioritization guidelines have not yet been implemented and are influenced by multiple factors including age, preexisting conditions and available resources. As for the second claim about socialized health care, Italy’s system has become overwhelmed due to the sheer amount of cases and patients, not because of its design. We rate these claims as “false,” based on our research. 

However, should Italy implement its protocol that triages patients based on age and other conditions, we would change the rating of these claims to “partly false.”

Our fact check sources:

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Fact check: Were Italians left to die? Is socialized medicine to blame?

Source Article