Rome, Italy – A large passenger ship docked in the port of Genoa is currently being transformed into an equipped floating hospital, set to welcome hundreds of coronavirus patients.
The vessel could offer essential services including intensive care and resuscitation units, officials and ship company representatives told Al Jazeera.
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After Italy tightened its coronavirus quarantine on Wednesday – ordering bars, restaurants and hairdressing and beauty salons to close – efforts are now being made to take pressure off struggling hospitals.
All over the country, intensive care departments are hosting 1,028 infected patients, while the national capacity is 5,395 beds.
On Thursday, the death toll in Europe’s worst-affected country jumped by 189 in 24 hours to 1,016. Confirmed cases across the country rose to 15,113 from a previous 12,462, according to the Civil Protection Agency.
Italian daily Il Secolo XIX reported on Wednesday that a flagship of global cruise operator MSC Cruises was ready to intervene in case of further needs, making up for the lack of places inside hospitals in the country’s north.
Giovanni Toti, president of the Liguria region, where Genoa is located, confirmed the undertaking of the measure during a news conference.
“We are studying with Genoa’s local health unit, our epidemic task force and specialists … the possibility of arranging a ferry boat or a cruise ship as a unit that could serve patients who are gradually recovering [from COVID-19] and convalescents who leave the hospitals but that are in a situation of fragility, like those living on their own,” said Toti.
“If our medical specialists confirm that technical conditions are met, patients will be able to find hospitality on this naval unit where a few hundreds of beds will be put at the disposal of the most fragile categories of people,” he added.
A task force including technicians, engineers and civil protection experts are working on a blueprint to implement the plan. Three options are currently on the table.
Giacomo Giampedrone, council member of Liguria’s civil defence, told Al Jazeera the first option would be transforming the ship into a support unit for people in need of spending the two-week compulsory quarantine after having had contacts with infected patients.
The second option would be using the ship as a quarantine location for patients who have tested positive to COVID 19; the third, whose feasibility is still being evaluated by the National Institution of Health and epidemiologists, aims to use the ferry as a field hospital for patients with full-blown COVID-19 infection.
“We are thinking about the first two options at the moment,” Giampedrone said. “This would create 400 bed places. For the third option, we are thinking of using the ship’s garage as a field hospital. This weekend will be crucial to understand the feasibility of the whole project.”
“If everything goes well, we will be able to organise the ship within 48 hours, meaning we could have places available as of next weekend,” Giampedrone said, who is expecting the peak of the infection to be reached in the next few weeks.
But a complete overhaul of the ferry’s ventilation system to isolate each cabin and prevent the spread of the virus is crucial.
According to the plan, each room will have a window or a small private terrace in order to get natural air, while work on providing each cabin with its own ventilation system is being carried out.
“This is why we shifted from a cruise ship to a ferry boat because the latter gives us this option,” Giampedrone said.
“If this works, the model could be replicated. Other regions in Italy are already thinking about this model. They are all waiting for us now.”
Public health expert Nino Cartabellotta told Al Jazeera any measure of social and distance and containment are an “optimum” at the moment.
Still, Cartabellotta said he was worried about the adjustments to the ventilation system, which are crucial both for the safety of patients and the medics in order not to repeat the mistake of the Diamond Princess case, in Japan.
A total of 696 people on the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship docked at Yokohama had tested positive for the virus. Seven people who were on the ship have died.
“No modification of the ventilation system was done in that case and passengers should have been disembarked immediately or at least provided with high protection masks.”