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A year ago, Laura Ricevuti and Annalisa Malara – both doctors at Codogno hospital in Lombardy, Italy – had a hunch something was different about a patient in the intensive care ward.

As Reuters reports, their decision to take matters into their own hands ended up triggering a national emergency – they had identified the first case of Covid-19 in the area that would become Europe’s first lockdown zone.

A previously healthy 38-year-old man, now known as Mattia, his first name, or “patient one”, had gone to the hospital with a high fever, cough and shortness of breath on 18 February 2020. He refused to be admitted so was given antibiotics and went home.

He returned that evening in a worse condition and was put on oxygen. Two days later, Mattia’s wife told doctors that a few weeks earlier he had gone to dinner with a colleague who had been in China.

But Mattia did not fit national criteria for mandatory coronavirus testing because he had not been in China personally.

“I had to explain many times why I wanted to perform it [a Covid-19 swab] anyway,” Malara told Reuters.

Dr Annalisa Malara

Dr Annalisa Malara Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP

“Doctor Malara and myself decided to break protocol,” Ricevuti recalled. They performed the nasal swab and sent it to a lab in Milan.

At 9:30pm the phone rang. The test was positive. Ricevuti said:


We couldn’t believe it. We thought this was a far away problem that had to do with China, but it was already here with us, and not just from that February 20th but probably from much earlier.

In the days that followed Codogno, a town of 15,000 residents, became the “capital” of the first “red zone” in Europe to be locked down. Malara said:


In the beginning I hoped – we all hoped – that the virus would be limited to a few people. But, after a few hours, a lot of people came to the emergency room with the same symptoms and after a few days it was clear that it had spread into the population.

Laura Ricevuti, one of doctors who diagnosed the first case of Covid-19 in an Italian patient

Laura Ricevuti, one of doctors who diagnosed the first case of Covid-19 in an Italian patient Photograph: Flavio Lo Scalzo/Reuters

Since then, 95,000 people have died in Italy, the second-highest toll in Europe after the UK and the seventh-highest in the world. Both doctors are still treating Covid-19 patients. Ricevuti said:


This is our mission. We cannot really retreat. Day by day, we go forward, facing the difficulties and the changes that life presents us … you need a lot of physical and mental strength.



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