Reportage. The small village of Vo, in the province of Padua, was the first red zone, but it also represented an important laboratory for the study of the virus.

A year of immeasurable loss – and scientific advances – for a small town in Northern Italy

The date of February 21 will remain etched in the memory of Vo for a long time. One year ago, in the small village on the Euganean Hills in the province of Padua, no one would have imagined finding themselves at the center of the attention of the entire world. But the death of Adriano Trevisan, a 77-year old man who died after ten days of hospitalization in the nearby Schiavonia hospital, changed everything. It was the first confirmed case of an Italian victim of the coronavirus—the confirmation that many had feared: the terrifying virus that had struck the Chinese city of Wuhan was now spreading in Europe.

On February 22, in an attempt to immediately stem the contagion, the Italian government declared Vo and a dozen municipalities around Codogno, in the province of Lodi, the largest outbreak at that time, a red zone.

Roadblocks were set up at various points of entry to the town of Vo, with the military manning the confines. Businesses and activities considered non-essential were closed. It was a foretaste of what would be seen in the following weeks throughout the country, although no one could yet know this.

The second death that would strike the small community of Vo was that of Renato Turetta, a 67-year-old man who, together with his friend Adriano Trevisan, often played cards in one of the town’s bars. “All the contacts that my father and Trevisan had, friends and family, were immediately called up, picked up in an ambulance and taken to Padua,” says his daughter, Manuela Turetta. After the results of the first swabs, the small hospital in Schiavonia was closed and the patients transferred to the better equipped facility in Padua. “Every day, the head physician called us to let us know how he was doing. Then he was intubated.” Renato Turetta would die on March 10, after three weeks in intensive care.

“He didn’t have a real funeral,” recalls Cristina Tosetto, Turetta’s wife. “It was just me, my daughter, the priest and Renato’s sister. Not in the church, but here, in the cemetery.”

Places of worship were closed because of restrictions due to the red zone. The cemetery of Cortelà, one of the hamlets of Vo, is reachable by driving uphill, after a couple of hairpin bends. “My father was brought here straight from the mortuary in Padova,“ says his daughter, Manuela. “He was a member of the Alpini mountain infantry, and the Alpini made a small commemoration in the square in presence of the mayor, asking for permission from the authorities, because in those days, manifestations and gatherings were forbidden.”

“This total lack of contact is an inhuman thing, a trauma that adds to the trauma,” explains the psychiatrist Diego De Leo, president of the De Leo Fund NGO, one of the organizations that took part in the commemoration led by Mayor Giuliano Martini on Monday morning at the town hall of Vo, where a tricolor knitted heart was set to be displayed. An olive tree was planted in one of the traffic circles at the entrance to the town, and there was a connection via streaming with the town of Codogno.

Andrea Crisanti, the microbiologist from the University of Padua who conducted a study here that was unique in the world, also sent a message. The positive results obtained in the management of the pandemic have given him great visibility, making him one of the main household names in the national conversation. In 2020, he was appointed technical consultant for the Veneto region and consultant in the investigation of deaths in nursing homes in Bergamo. However, as the months progressed, while the national government and the region pushed for the relaxation of many preventive measures, Crisanti strongly criticized their management, which he considered not prudent enough, often in open conflict with the President of the Region, Luca Zaia, among others.

“I believe it was the first ever screening of an entire population in the world. It’s very important, because in analyzing an entire population, you don’t have any confounding factors.” After the lockdown, the Veneto region decided to swab all the inhabitants of Vo—“and we asked whether a second screening could be carried out ten days later, precisely in order to verify the effect of the countermeasures taken. We showed that in a situation where a whole community or a whole group of related people is tested, and all positive cases are isolated, the transmission of the virus practically stops. We also showed that virus transmission was largely sustained by asymptomatic individuals. This was a pivotal study in understanding some aspects that later proved to be critical in implementing countermeasures.”

The first part of the study, carried out by the University of Padua in collaboration with Imperial College London, has been published in the scientific journal Nature in June 2020.

A second part of the research will be made public in the coming weeks: “We have shown that antibodies last for at least nine months, and that people who have developed them are protected when exposed to the transmission of the virus.”

The effectiveness of the measures implemented in Vo, based on the isolation of positives and tracing their contacts, including asymptomatics, was the basis of the model adopted by the Veneto region, which managed to limit infections and deaths, especially during the first wave. However, its effectiveness was significantly lower with the arrival of the second wave, also due to the relaxation of preventive measures after the end of the national lockdown in May. In the Veneto region, there were just over 2,000 victims by September; with the second wave, the total exceeded 9,600 deaths, one-tenth of the deaths in Italy. “I think that politics has shown, like never before, that it is unable to give answers when it responds to economic needs and interests. It completely loses its bearing,” reflects Crisanti. “Now we are in a kind of limbo: there are great expectations about the vaccines, and in fact we have given up doing many other things, thinking that they would be the solution. We realize, however, that this symbol of salvation also has its limits: these vaccines are very complex to make, difficult to distribute, not all of them work, and then there are the virus variants. They are rich people’s vaccines, they require a cold chain of transport, it is practically impossible to distribute them in poor countries.”

In those agitated first weeks of February, “I had already suggested on the 24th to lock down all of Lombardy. Instead, they waited for a long time: the real lockdown of the region, and the rest of Italy, took place practically a month later. This, in my opinion, testifies to the ineptitude and inability of politics to make decisions.” As for the loosening of restrictions, “in May, after two months of lockdown, when we had very few cases, we again missed an opportunity to create a whole system of control and tracking, which would have allowed us to withstand the shock of this second wave much better. Instead, we are continuing as if nothing has happened, and we forget that there are still 10-15 thousand cases per day and still hundreds of deaths. Let’s remember that every communicable disease is potentially preventable. The fact that we have all these sick people and all these deaths is testimony to a total failure.”

However, Vo has managed to keep the numbers of infections and deaths very low, becoming a valuable laboratory for studying the virus. “There were three deaths from the coronavirus during the first wave, and five in total,” explains Mayor Giuliano Martini. “We have only had six positives in the last week, and the numbers have been steadily decreasing. The most we’ve had were 19 positives, one-fifth of those in neighboring municipalities.”

Martini, who was elected in 2019 for the third time in the last four elections, at the head of a civic list, faced unexpected difficulties. “We were, in fact, isolated, as if we were beset by plague. But then we showed our ability to team up, bringing in 3,000 people in three days to swab in such a small municipality, with few resources and very few staff. All this has helped to overturn the negative image that Vo had at the beginning.”

Subscribe to our newsletter

Your weekly briefing of progressive news.

You have Successfully Subscribed!