Claudia Alivernini receives the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Spallanzani hospital in Rome, Italy Photograph:( Reuters )
For months, Italians have hungered for the vaccines that would give them safety, freedom from lockdown and a taste of normal life
As Dr. Mario Sorlini sits patients down in a vaccination center near the badly affected Italian town of Bergamo, he explains a potential complication of the coronavirus vaccine.
The second dose, he tells patients with terror-stricken faces, will fall on a date during the summer holidays.
“‘But I’ll be in Sardinia then,’” he said some had responded with distress. Others moan about hotel rooms they have already booked. Some, he said, get up and leave.
For months, Italians have hungered for the vaccines that would give them safety, freedom from lockdown and a taste of normal life. After initial pitfalls and hurdles, the vaccination campaign is finally speeding up, but it is heading smack into the summer holidays that are sacred for many Italians and prompting fears among officials that a significant number would rather get away than get vaccinated.
“I am certain that many, after such a hard year, will risk delaying the vaccine” until after the summer holidays, said Renata Tosi, the mayor of Riccione, a beach town that is so identified with summer flings that it lent its name to a recent vacation anthem. That could create a significant danger next fall, Tosi wrote in an open letter to the region’s president.
“The Second Shot Blocks Vacation,” read a headline in Messaggero Veneto, a newspaper in northeastern Italy, echoing concerns in papers, websites and social media accounts across the country.
An estimated 20 million Italians — mostly 40- and 50-somethings — face the prospect of getting their second shots in the middle of July or worse, in the riptide that is the Italian August, which pulls people out of cities and into swelling seaside towns.
To avoid a potentially disastrous summer freeze in the vaccination campaign, and more economic pain, Italy’s regions are urging the government to meet vacationers where they are and offer shots on the beach.
“We want to give the second dose to tourists who are not from Veneto,” Luca Zaia, the president of that region, which includes Venice, told reporters, “and also to foreigners, if they want, we can find a solution for them.” He has led the charge to pressure the government to be more flexible to save the tourism season and to loosen up the rigid regional health system to allow Italians to get vaccinated in sun-and-surf regions far from home.
Others are working on contingency plans. In Lombardy, another northern region, where the former top health official lost his job last year after refusing to call back nurses from Christmas holidays, his replacement has sought to avoid scheduling second doses in August.
The president of the mountainous Piedmont region, in the northwest, has promised flexibility and proposed an arrangement with the seaside region of Liguria that would allow their vacationing residents to swap second doses.
Italy’s new government, led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, prides itself on pragmatism and is desperate to get the tourism economy moving. Draghi recently announced that Italy would lift quarantines and restrictions on vaccinated international tourists and told them “it’s time to book your holidays in Italy.”
Island paradises like Capri, favored by many foreigners, have accelerated their vaccination campaigns and are now considered COVID-free. But when it comes to Italians, who are themselves still in the process of getting vaccinated during the summer months, the government has sought to strike a balance between openness to innovative ideas and scolding Italians for their spring and summer fever.
“If we do flights of fancy and inventions, I’m not in,” Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, an army general who has been put in charge of Italy’s vaccination effort, said on Tuesday, seeking to throw cold water on plans floated by governors to inoculate vacationing Italians wherever they might go.
Such a policy would most likely disrupt rigid regional databases and the orderly process that has finally started lowering deaths and contagions. Italians, the general said, should plan their vacations around the vaccination appointment near their home. “Whoever is going on vacation should plan according to their appointment,” he said.
Massimiliano Fedriga, president of Italy’s conference of regions, also called the idea of vaccinating vacationing Italians impossible.
“I hope everybody realizes that some places have millions and millions of tourists who will arrive,” he told reporters. “And that it is technically impossible.”
He suggested leaving vacations for a day and then heading back.
But that may be easier said than done, and many have complained that the government is to blame for altering reservations and creating confusion. In an effort to bolster the number of Italians with some protection against the virus, on April 30, Italy allowed an extension of the waiting period between first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine to 42 days, from 21. Italians receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine have to wait even longer between shots, with those getting the first dose now often having the follow-up coincide with the August abyss.
The result has been a wrenching should-I-stay-or-should-I-go dilemma for Italians who have already planned their summer holidays and are weighing lost deposits against losing their vaccination slots.
Even in a normal year, summer vacation is a serious topic in Italy. For a certain, well-heeled slice of society, summer plans — which often last a full month away from work — are all anyone talks about, starting in about March.
This year, people have sought vacations with such a vengeance that tourism operators have started using the term “revenge travel” to describe the way Italians are trying to get even with the cruel months of lockdown. Surfing for holiday homes has become the new doom scrolling.
Around Rome this week, Italians talked about how “vacation is sacred,” and how the siren call of an inoculation was not strong enough to keep them off course from Sicily.
The people in the next category eligible for vaccination, less-vulnerable 30- and 20-year-olds, are even less likely to stay home for summer.
Tosi, the mayor of Riccione, said in her letter that she had received many appeals from people who had received their first doses in Milan wanting to get their second shots in her seaside town.
“We absolutely want to respond ‘yes’” and show, she said, that the country had the flexibility necessary to beat the virus and save summer. “We must give citizens the possibility of ending their immunization journey in vacation spots.”
Sorlini, in Albino, near Bergamo, said that for now, most of his patients were accepting the summer date for follow-up shots but that many asked, “‘Can I do it at the beach?’”
He said he expected at least 10 people a day to give up on their August appointments for second shots, which means he will struggle to keep those doses from going to waste.
Ciro Mautone, 58, a security guard at Camponeschi, a cafe popular with the vacation set in Rome, said that he had selected the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which does not require a second shot, in part not to interrupt a potential holiday.
But he said that after the brutal year, with his work hit by the closing of businesses, he was focused on making up lost income rather than fretting about cutting short a vacation.
“I wish I had that problem,” he said.