KEY POINTS

  • Italy leads the world in COVID-19 deaths, which now stands at more than 13,000
  • This number, however, might be far lower than the actual death toll by many thousands
  • People that died from other diseases due to resources being diverted away from their care add to the horror that is COVID-19

The confusion and immense chaos exploding from Italy's catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic, which has given Italy the world's largest number of deaths at more than 13,000, is leading to a vast undercounting of the true number of casualties.

Experts note the official death toll tells only part of the story because many people that die from COVID-19 never made it to hospitals and were never tested. They point out that in areas in northern Italy worst hit by the pandemic, the undercounting of deaths probably runs into the thousands. Also contributing to the undercounting is the sad fact many of those that die outside hospitals (such as the elderly in nursing homes) usually aren’t tested for the coronavirus.

“They are not receiving post-mortem tests,” Dr. Eleonora Colombi, a family doctor based near Brescia, says of people who die outside hospitals, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Many of those who die and aren’t tested are old, but you normally don’t have so many people all dying at the same time. It’s corona.”

Dr. Colombi also said she has a problem with the elderly and other sick people like cancer patients that are dying at home.

“The ambulance won’t come if you are 94 years old and there are 50 other people waiting," she noted.

One other reason for the undercounting -- more than a fifth of Bergamo’s family doctors have been infected by COVID-19. These reasons make it difficult to establish Italy's true fatality rate for COVID-19. Estimates by epidemiologists of the true fatality rate vary widely, but is generally thought to be between 1% and 3% of those infected. This figure conforms with estimates by the World Health Organization.

Italy's true death toll must also include those that died from other causes, said an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. The deaths of these people, many of them elderly, became inevitable as hospitals diverted resources away from heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other deadly diseases to fight the more immediate threat to public health presented by COVID-19.

In Coccaglio, a town near Brescia of 8,700 residents and a hour's drive east of Milan, there were only 85 deaths in all of 2019. In March of this year, however, the town recorded 56 deaths -- but only 12 of these were officially attributed to COVID-19.

In the provincial cities of Bergamo and Brescia in northern Italy, the two worst hotspots for COVID-19, doctors confirm Italians are also dying of other ailments because hospitals are too overloaded with COVID-19 cases to give them the needed treatment.

“There are many more dead than are officially declared," Eugenio Fossati, deputy mayor of Coccaglio, told WSJ. "But this is not a j’accuse. People died and they were never tested because time and resources are limited."

In towns surrounding Lombardy, the deaths recorded in March are many times the average monthly number, said local officials. In many towns, the monthly toll today matches deaths towns normally record in about six months.

A priest stands by coffins stored in the church of San Giuseppe near Bergamo, Italy A priest stands by coffins stored in the church of San Giuseppe near Bergamo, Italy Photo: AFP / Piero CRUCIATTI