Hands touch: Italy’s nursing homes emerge from COVID tunnel

By COLLEEN BARRY for the Associated Press

ALZANO LOMBARDO, Italy (AP) — Their last hug was through plastic.

Palmiro “Mario” Tami knew this was the day he was getting his second coronavirus vaccine shot. But with the northern Italian region of Lombardy again under lockdown, he did not know it would be accompanied by a visit from his wife of 58 years. Nor that he would be able, at last, to touch her hand.

In this photo taken on Feb. 24, 2021, Palmiro Tami, 82, celebrates his birthday hugging with his wife Franca Persico, inside a protective inflatable plastic tunnel at the Martino Zanchi nursing home, in Alzano Lombardo, northern Italy. Italy’s nursing homes have been declared an initial success in an otherwise lagging vaccine campaign. At a nursing home near Bergamo, one 82-year-old resident received his second jab, and a surprise visit from his 77-year-old wife. Their last hug had been through plastic on his birthday. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

“Franca? Is that you?” Tami, 82, exclaimed as he peered through the window of the nursing home rec room at a figure wrapped in a hospital gown, coiffed hair covered by green surgical netting and face obscured by a surgical mask. Still, through the glass, her bright blue eyes shone through.

His wife, Franca Persico, held a red rose she had brought for him. Tami reached inside his canvas pouch for a tiny statuette of a girl for her. “I won it at Bingo,” Tami said with delight.

The Martino Zanchi Foundation Nursing Home has been closed to visitors for most of the month, as Italy’s pandemic epicenter of Lombardy plunged again into a near-total lockdown. Tami and his wife last saw each other in person on Feb. 24, Tami’s birthday. They were able to embrace through a hug tunnel, an inflatable plastic structure that permitted residents to safely hug loved ones. Even that muffled touch had been denied since August.

The final jab for the first one-third of the nursing home’s 94 residents this week marked the beginning of the end of a year-long struggle to protect its fragile wards.

Nursing homes like the Martino Zanchi Foundation suffered the brunt of Italy’s first wave, claiming at least one-third of Italy’s official virus victims. Many more were not tested or counted as they died.

Nursing home director Maria Giulia Madaschi estimates that three-quarters of the 21 people who died in her care in March and April 2020 had COVID-19, which ravaged the valley next to Bergamo, spreading from Alzano Lombardo’s hospital nearby. But the system was too taxed to test nursing home residents and those deaths never figured into Italy’s death toll.

Italy has prioritized vaccines to the devastated nursing homes, and officials have declared a decline in cases among residents “an initial success” in a vaccination campaign otherwise marred by supply delays and disorganization. Half of Italy’s over-80s at large still have not been vaccinated, despite initial promises to have them fully vaccinated by the end of March.

On Monday, 27 of the nursing home’s residents received their second shot. Another round of vaccinations were made in the week, and the final group will be protected in early April. Madaschi hopes this is a sign that they are emerging from the dark COVID-19 tunnel.

“A little light, I can see,” she said.

Tami, a retired nurse in orthopedic surgery, received his jab happily. The doctor who administered it, knowing Tami’s pride in his former profession, teased that she had once been his apprentice.

Tami had arrived at the nursing home in August during a lull in the pandemic. Tami had suffered mobility and cognitive declines due to heart issues, and then his wife underwent surgery for cancer shortly before Italy’s 2020 spring lockdown. Doctors advised she could no longer give him the care he needed at home.

The irregularity of visits and the changing restrictions due to COVID-19 were a cause of stress — and a strong enough reason for Madaschi to make an exception to the no-visitor rule.

Madaschi picked Persico, 77, up at the apartment the couple had shared, which was filled with family photographs, including that of a first great-grandchild, and cut crystal glasses and vases. Persico, dressed elegantly in a knit top with a shimmer of gold lurex, confessed she had been ready since 7 a.m.

“I wasn’t even this nervous on my wedding day,” she said. “Maybe because I was younger.”

The couple’s reunion started hesitantly, separated at first by glass. But the nursing home staff had prepared a private table in the rec room for lunch. The couple sat at either end, as Persico explained that she still hadn’t been vaccinated, reminding her husband that she was a cancer patient who needed to take extra care.

“I am crazy in love with you,” Tami said across the long table. “Can I touch your hand?”

Madaschi pushed Tami outdoors into the sunlight, where the couple, at last, clasped hands. “We can kiss each other again?” he asked from behind his mask.

Of course, his bride of 58 years answered. When she, too, has had the vaccine.