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‘We Take the Dead From Morning Till Night’

The streets of Bergamo are empty. As in all of Italy, people can leave their homes only for food and medicine and work. The factories and shops and schools are closed. There is no more chatting on the corners or in the coffee bars.

But what won’t stop are the sirens.

While the world’s attention shifts to its own centers of contagion, the sirens keep sounding. Like the air raid sirens of World War II, they are the ambulance sirens that many survivors of this war will remember. They blare louder as they get closer, coming to collect the parents and grandparents, keepers of Italy’s memory.

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“At this point, all you hear in Bergamo is sirens,” said Michela Travelli.

On March 7, her father, Claudio Travelli, 60, was perfectly healthy. The next day, he developed a fever and flu-like symptoms. His wife had run a fever in recent days, and so he called his family doctor, who told him to take a common Italian fever reducer and rest up.

Claudio Travelli and his wife didn’t take the threat of the virus seriously back then, their daughter said, “because it wasn’t sold as a grave thing.”

But Travelli could not shake his fever and he got sicker.

On Friday, March 13, he felt unbearable pressure on his chest and suffered dry heaves. His temperature spiked and his family called an ambulance. An ambulance crew found her father with low levels of oxygen in his blood but, following the advice of Bergamo’s hospitals, recommended he stay home. “They said, ‘We have seen worse and the hospitals are like the trenches of a war,’ ” Michela Travelli said.

Another day at home led to a night of coughing fits and fever. On Sunday, Claudio Travelli woke up and wept, saying, “I’m sick. I can’t do it anymore,” his daughter said.

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This time, as the ambulance arrived, his daughters, both wearing gloves and masks, packed a bag with two pairs of pajamas, a bottle of water, a cellphone, and a charger. His oxygen levels had dipped.

Red Cross workers hovered over him on a bed, where he lay below a painting of the Virgin Mary. They brought him into the ambulance. His granddaughters, 3 and 6, waved goodbye from the terrace. He looked up at them, at the balconies draped with Italians flags. Then the ambulance left and there was nothing to hear. “Only the police and the sirens,” his daughter said.

The ambulance crew that took Travelli away had started early that morning.

At 7:30 a.m., a crew of three Red Cross volunteers met to make sure the ambulance was certified as cleaned and stocked with oxygen. Like masks and gloves, the tanks had become an increasingly rare resource. They blasted one another in sprays of alcohol disinfectants. They sanitized their cellphones.

“We can’t be the untori,” said Nadia Vallati, 41, a Red Cross volunteer, whose day job is working in the city’s tax office. She was referring to the infamous “anointers,” suspected in Italian lore of spreading contagion during the 17th-century plague. After sanitizing, Vallati and her colleagues wait for an alarm to sound in their headquarters. It never takes long.

Indistinguishable from one another in the white medical scrubs pulled over their red uniforms, crew members entered Travelli’s home on March 15 with tanks of oxygen. “Always with oxygen,” Vallati said.

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One of the biggest dangers for infected patients is hypoxemia, or low blood oxygen. Normal readings are between 95 and 100, and doctors worry when it dips below 90.

Vallati said she had found coronavirus patients with readings of 50.

This weekend, a group of doctors from one Bergamo hospital wrote in a medical journal associated with The New England Journal of Medicine that “we are learning that hospitals might be the main COVID-19 carriers.”

Ambulances and their personnel get infected, they said, but perhaps show no symptoms and spread the virus further. As a result, the doctors urged home care and mobile clinics to avoid bringing people to the hospital unless absolutely necessary.

The hospital had 500 coronavirus patients, who occupied all 90 ICU beds. About a month ago, the hospital had seven such beds.

Physicians wrote that intensive care unit beds were reserved for coronavirus patients with “a reasonable chance to survive.” Older patients, they said, “are not being resuscitated and die alone.”

Claudio Travelli ended up at the nearby Humanitas Gavazzeni hospital. He is still alive.

So many people are dying so quickly, the hospital mortuaries and funeral workers cannot keep up. “We take the dead from the morning to night, one after the other, constantly,” said Vanda Piccioli, who runs one of the last funeral homes to remain open, as others have closed as a result of sick funeral directors, some in intensive care. “Usually we honor the dead. Now it’s like a war and we collect the victims.”

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Piccioli said one member of her staff had died of the virus Sunday. She considered closing but decided they had a responsibility to keep going, despite what she said was constant terror of infection and emotional trauma. “You are a sponge and you take the pain of everybody,” she said.

She said her staff moved 60 infected bodies daily, from Papa Giovanni and Alzano hospitals, from clinics, from nursing homes and apartments. “It’s hard for us to get masks and gloves,” she said. “We are a category in the shadows.”

Piccioli said that in the beginning, they sought to get the personal effects of the dead, kept in red plastic bags, back to their loved ones. A tin of cookies. A mug. Pajamas. Slippers. But now they simply don’t have time.

Still, the calls to the Red Cross crew do not stop.

To contain the virus, all religious and civil celebrations are banned in Italy. That includes funerals. Bergamo’s cemetery is locked shut. A chilling backlog of coffins waits in a traffic jam for the crematorium inside the cemetery’s church.

Officials have banned changing the clothes of the dead and require that people be buried or cremated in the pajamas or medical gowns they perish in. Corpses need to be wrapped in an extra bag or cloaked in a disinfecting cloth. The lids of coffins, which usually cannot be closed without a formal death certificate, now can be, though they still have to wait to be sealed. And bodies often linger in homes for days.

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