Probe into Italy virus response looks into preparedness plan

Prosecutors from northern Italy traveled to Rome on Thursday to question the health minister and others as part of their broadening investigation into whether to lay any criminal blame for Italy’s horrific coronavirus toll, and whether a lack of preparedness contributed to it.

Back in June, Bergamo prosecutors questioned Premier Giuseppe Conte, Health Minister Roberto Speranza and other top officials about the delayed lockdown in two Bergamo towns where infections were reported in the early days of the outbreak.

Bergamo subsequently became Italy’s COVID-19 epicenter, the first in the West, registering a 571% increase in excess deaths in March compared to the previous five-year average.

FILE - In this Thursday, March 26, 2020 file photo, military trucks moving coffins of deceased people line up on the highway next to Ponte Oglio, near Bergamo, one of the areas worst hit by the coronavirus infection, on their way from Bergamo cemetery to a crematory in some other location as the local crematory exceeded its maximum capacity. Prosecutors from northern Italy have traveled to Rome Thursday, Jan. 28, 2021, to question the health minister and others as part of their broadening investigation into whether to lay any criminal blame for Italy’s horrific coronavirus toll. (AP PhotoLuca Bruno, File)

The Bergamo probe, though, has now expanded to look into Italy’s preparedness going into the pandemic, investigators say. A scandal over a spiked World Health Organization report into Italy’s response has revealed that the health ministry’s influenza pandemic preparedness plan hadn’t been updated since 2006.

But Bergamo investigators are also looking looking into indications that even that 2006 plan was never implemented in Lombardy once the outbreak hit, contributing to what the WHO called Italy’s “improvised, chaotic and creative” response to the thousands of sick who quickly overwhelmed Lombardy’s hospitals.

“What is emerging is that they never implemented what they had, which is more serious than the fact that it wasn’t updated,” a Bergamo investigator told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal details of the investigation.

Lombardy officials have defended their handling of the outbreak, while those responsible for updating the pandemic plan have noted that the 2006 document was an influenza pandemic plan, not a coronavirus one. Investigators however say there was plenty of crossover that could have been applied, such that the WHO recommended Jan. 5 that member states adopt guidance plans for influenza or virus pandemics to be prepared for what was then believed to be a still-contained outbreak in Wuhan, China.

The pandemic plan isn't the only headache for Lombardy officials. They are also under the spotlight for having apparently provided the Italian Superior Institute of Health with incomplete virus data that resulted in the region being declared a “red zone” for part of January, with all nonessential commercial activities shuttered, when it didn’t necessarily deserve to be.

Lombardy Gov. Attilio Fontana has blamed the institute and vowed legal action, saying its monitoring mechanism that classifies Italian regions for virus risk factors was unfairly penalizing Lombardy and “delivering a huge hit to the Lombardy economy."

But the institute says Lombardy failed to provide updated data on people who eventually tested negative or were cured of COVID-19. That led to inflated numbers of current cases that skewed the institute's monitoring system, showing that Lombardy had far more sick people than it really did.

The mishap and ensuing “red zone" closures resulted in millions of euros in lost revenue for businesses in Lombardy, Italy's economic engine, prompting the National Association of Consumers, unions and some individual lawyers to announce a class action lawsuit to try to recover some of the losses.

To date, no one has been indicted in the Bergamo investigation, and it’s not clear what, if any, criminal responsibility might be assigned to public officials for decisions taken or not. Italy has recorded more than 87,000 COVID-19 dead, more than any other European country except Britain.

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