In Italy, the young get vaccinated for Covid ahead of elderly

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A healthcare worker examines a man at the Santa Chiara hospital as doctors begin testing phase 2 and 3 of Italy's ReiThera coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine on patients after initial positive test results, in Pisa, Italy, April 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jennifer Lorenzini

Octogenarians in Tuscany watched in disbelief and indignation as lawyers, magistrates, professors and other younger professionals got vaccinated against the coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) before them, despite government pledges of prioritizing Italy’s oldest citizens. Even some of their adult children jumped ahead of them.

By one estimate, the failure to give shots to the over-80s and those in fragile health has cost thousands of lives in a country with Europe’s oldest population and its second-highest loss of life in the pandemic.

As the elderly were elbowed aside, a dozen prominent senior citizens in Tuscany published a letter calling out the authorities, including the region’s governor, for what they said was a violation of their health care rights enshrined in the Italian Constitution.

“We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the reason for this disparity?’” said signatory Enzo Cheli, a retired constitutional court judge who is a month shy of 87. By late March, he still hadn’t been vaccinated, three months into Italy’s inoculation campaign.

“The appeal was born of this idea that errors were being made, abuses,” Cheli said in a telephone interview from his country home near Siena. He noted that investigations are underway in Tuscany and other regions where professionals received priority status.

Those over 80 in Tuscany have the lowest vaccination rate nationally.

Another signatory was 85-year-old editorial cartoonist Emilio Giannelli, who hasn’t been vaccinated, while his son, a lawyer, has.

A Giannelli cartoon appeared on the front page of Corriere della Sera depicting a young man in a business jacket kicking an old man leaning on a cane out of a vaccine line.

In a country where many citizens have learned not to count on often weak national governments, outsize influence is wielded by lobbying groups, sometimes derided as “castes.”

Premier Mario Draghi has decried such “contractual clout,” saying last month that the “basic line is the need to vaccinate the most fragile people and the over-80s.” His government insists that vaccinations proceed in descending order by age, with the only exceptions being school and university employees, security forces, prison personnel and inmates, and those in communal residences such as convents.

According to a calculation by the ISPI think tank, opening vaccination rolls to younger Italians cost 6,500 lives from mid-January through March, a period in which nearly 28,000 died.

ISPI researcher Matteo Villa said any decision to vaccinate non-health care professionals who face infection risks should have been limited to those 50 and older.

“If we give 100 vaccines to people over 90, we save 13 lives,” Villa said in a phone interview, citing mortality rates. “But it takes 100,000 vaccines to 20- to 29-year-olds to save just one life.”

The current average age of pandemic dead in Italy is 81.

 

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