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Covid-19 ‘tsunami’ overwhelmed a whole generation in northern Italy. Now their families want answers

Milan, Italy (CNN)Plot 87 occupies a barren corner of Milan’s austere main cemetery. Here, the soil has been freshly turned to make new graves, 120 in all, the morning we visited. Another body was to be buried that afternoon.

A simple, white plastic cross marks each grave. Taped to each cross is a piece of paper bearing a surname, sometimes with an initial, sometimes with a first name. No date of birth. No date of death. Cemetery workers have placed a single plastic flower on each grave.

Here lie those who succumbed to coronavirus in Milan, but whose bodies have yet to be claimed.

    Plot 87 in Milan's main cemetery, where the unclaimed dead are buried.

    An official at the cemetery, who requested that his name not be used, told me most of them were old and had been in nursing homes. Many, he added, had no families. In a few cases, the families of the dead have been unable to claim the bodies because of the lockdown.

    With morgues filled to capacity, and more dying each day at the peak of the outbreak, authorities in Italy’s coronavirus hotspots had little choice but to bury the unclaimed dead like this. If their families come forward to claim the bodies once the epidemic is over, the remains will be exhumed and reburied.

    Those laid to rest here died alone. Then again, with coronavirus, almost everyone dies alone.

    Police investigation into Italian care homes finds coronavirus violations

    Carla Porfirio wanted desperately to be with her mother in her final moments.

    Before the coronavirus outbreak, she visited her 85-year-old mother Michela, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, every day in Milan’s sprawling Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute nursing home.

    When the nursing home abruptly stopped relatives from visiting their loved ones as the virus spread, Porfirio said she called every day to ask about her mother. Every day the staff reassured her Michela was fine.

    Porfirio is concerned that she wasn’t told when her mother first became unwell. When she called the home on Sunday April 5, she was informed that Michela had been put on oxygen and given morphine.

    She died the next day.

    Carla Porfirio's 85-year-old mother died in a nursing home in Italy.

    “What’s so tragic for those of us who lost their loved ones,” Porfirio told CNN, her voice breaking with emotion, is that “we couldn’t be close to them in their last days as they suffered. They needed the hand of their loved ones.”

    At the height of the pandemic’s rampage through northern Italy, the regional government of Lombardy asked nursing homes to make room for non-critical Covid-19 patients, to lighten the massive burden on hospitals.

    Porfirio said the Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi nursing home put one of those patients in the same room as her mother and two other older women.

    When Porfirio protested, she says a staff member told her the home had no choice; it had run out of space.

    The Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute told CNN in a statement that “starting from the detection of the first case … at the Palazzolo Institute, the Don Gnocchi Foundation started the isolation, mapping and swab testing procedures on contacts exposed to the risk of contagion … All Covid-19 positive cases were handled according to the protocols provided by the authorities, and in coordination with the authorities themselves.”

    The institute did not respond to Carla Porfirio’s claims regarding the care of her mother.

    Italian authorities are investigating a string of health violations at elderly care homes across the country during the Covid-19 crisis.

    The Palazzolo-Don Gnocchi Institute believes the investigation will show their work was proper.

    “We are confident that the brief presented by the Foundation’s lawyers at the Milan Public Prosecutor’s Office and documents subsequently acquired by the judiciary will confirm the correctness of the Foundation’s work in the context of this health emergency,”

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