ROME – Prosecutors questioned Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Friday about the lack of a coronavirus lockdown on two towns in northern Italy’s Lombardy region that became one of the hardest-hit areas of the country’s outbreak.
Doctors and virologists have said the two-week delay in quarantining Alzano and Nembro helped allow the virus to spread in Bergamo province, which saw a 571% increase in excess deaths in March compared with the average of the previous five years.
Lead prosecutor Maria Cristina Rota questioned Conte, and the health and interior ministers, at the premier's office in Rome. She stressed that the officials were interviewed as witnesses in the investigation, not suspects.
“The hearing went on in a cordial manner and there was maximum institutional cooperation," she told reporters at the end of the session. “We leave grateful for the declarations received, and we’ll go finish our job.”
To date, no one has been placed under investigation and it's unclear what, if any, criminal responsibility might be assigned to public officials for decisions taken or not in the onetime epicenter of Europe's outbreak.
Among other things, the probe is looking into whether it fell to the national government in Rome, or the Lombardy regional authorities, to create a so-called “red zone" around the two towns.
After interviewing Lombardy regional officials last month, Rota said it appeared it was the national government's responsibility. But Conte's office has pointed to norms that delegate such authority to regions, and noted that other regions have instituted “red zones" on their own.
Italy registered its first domestic positive case Feb. 21 in the Lombardy province of Lodi. Ten towns in the province were immediately locked down to try to contain the spread. Alzano and Nembro registered their first positive cases two days later, on Feb. 23, but the government didn’t quarantine them for two weeks until all of Lombardy was locked down March 7.
Asked if, in hindsight, he should have locked down sooner, Conte told La Stampa daily Friday that he was at peace with the decisions taken. “I acted based on science and conscience," he was quoted as saying.
On March 3, the Superior Institute of Health recommended a “red zone" around Alzano and Nembro. But in those same days, the Bergamo branch of Italy's leading business lobby, Confindustria, promoted an English-language social media campaign meant to reassure Bergamo's international industrial partners.
The #BergamoIsRunning campaign insisted the outbreak was no worse than elsewhere, that the “misleading sensation” of its high number of infections was due to aggressive testing, and that production in steel mills and other industries was unaffected.
Bergamo Mayor Giorgio Gori initially supported the campaign but now says he regrets not having locked down sooner. But he said at the time, no one knew the extent of contagion or that the virus had been circulating widely in Bergamo as early as January.
“We didn’t lose five days, we lost two months,” Gori told the foreign press association this week.
He noted that Italy's health ministry on Jan. 22 issued a circular instructing local health authorities to flag any cases of anomalous pneumonia as possible coronavirus cases that should be tested. On Jan. 27, the health ministry amended that instruction to only test pneumonia patients who had visited China or been in direct contact with someone who had.
The narrowing of criteria “restricted the field of observation and impeded Italy, Lombardy and Bergamo from recognizing that the epidemic was already here many weeks before it was officially recognized," he said.
In a separate tangent of the investigation, at least 50 families who lost loved ones to the virus have provided Bergamo prosecutors with formal legal complaints to seek clarity if there was wrongdoing in any of the cases.
Stefano Fusco, who helped organize a Facebook group at the peak of the epidemic that collected stories of loss, said the testimony is not aimed at prosecuting individual health care workers but revealing where the system might have failed.
Fusco told reporters this week that the industrial importance of Alzano and Nembro to Lombardy's economy, which accounts for some 21% of Italy's gross domestic product, clearly impacted the decision to not lock down.
“There are more than 300 businesses and thousands and thousands of jobs. If Lombardy is the motor of Italy, Alzano and Nembro are the pistons of this motor," he said.
Cristina Longhini, a pharmacist whose father died March 19, said the group is seeking answers from prosecutors as to whether the national government, regional officials, local health care officials or the industrial lobby bore any blame for the deaths.
Longhini said her 65-year-old father had diabetes but was otherwise healthy when he fell sick at the beginning of March. She said his doctor refused to see him in person and he wasn't tested because he wasn't having respiratory problems.
Only once he was taken to Bergamo's Pope John XXIII hospital was it confirmed that he had the virus. But the hospital told the family they didn't have a bed for him in the intensive care unit, Longhini said.
“Tell us who is responsible, because in Italy everyone tends to lay the blame on someone else," she told reporters.
AP video journalist Luigi Navarro contributed.
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