Italy rushes to promote new doctors to relieve coronavirus crisis

ROME, March 17 (Reuters) - Italy will rush 10,000 student doctors into service, scrapping their final exams, in an effort to help the struggling health service cope with the coronavirus onslaught.

Some 2,158 people have died of the disease in Italy since the outbreak came to light on Feb. 21, while the total number of confirmed cases has surged to 27,980, making Italy the worst-hit country outside of China.

The crisis has pushed hospitals to breaking point at the epicenter of the contagion in northern Italy and left other regions scrambling to strengthen their own health networks as the number of infected rises nationwide.

University Minister Gaetano Manfredi said the government would let this year's crop of medicine graduates start work some eight or nine months ahead of schedule and waive the mandatory exams they normally sit before qualifying.

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Italy weeks into COVID-19 epidemic
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Italy weeks into COVID-19 epidemic
Medical workers in overalls stretch a patient under intensive care into the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
MOLINETTE HOSPITAL, TURIN, ITALY - 2020/03/16: A banner reading 'Thanks for what you are doing' hangs outside emergency room of hospital Molinette to thank doctors, nurses and others medical workers. The Italian government imposed unprecedented restrictions to halt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, among other measures people movements are allowed only for work, for buying essential goods and for health reasons. (Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)
MOLINETTE HOSPITAL, TURIN, ITALY - 2020/03/16: A nurse measures temperature of a man for pre triage, to carry out coronavirus infection control tests. The Italian government imposed unprecedented restrictions to halt the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, among other measures people movements are allowed only for work, for buying essential goods and for health reasons. (Photo by Nicolò Campo/LightRocket via Getty Images)
CORIGLIANO-ROSSANO, CALABRIA, ITALY - 2020/03/16: People keeping a safe distance queuing outside a post office wearing a mask for fear of Coronavirus infection (COVID-19). (Photo by Alfonso Di Vincenzo/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A medical worker wearing a face mask and overalls drives an ambulance into the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman walks her dogs across the deserted surroundings of the closed Colosseum monument on March 16, 2020 in Rome. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)
Medical workers in overalls stretch a patient under intensive care into the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
A mural by artist Franco Rivolli Art, depicting a nurse wearing a face mask, with wings behind her back and cradling Italy, is pictured on a wall of the Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital in Bergamo, Lombardy, on March 16, 2020. (Photo by Piero Cruciatti / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION (Photo by PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images)
NAPLES, CAMPANIA, ITALY - 2020/03/16: (EDITORS NOTE: Image was created with a drone.) View of the empty Dante Alighieri square in Naples city, after the Italian government has imposed unprecedented national restrictions on controlling the coronavirus COVID 19. (Photo by Salvatore Laporta/KONTROLAB/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A hearse transporting a coffin enters the Monumental cemetery of Bergamo, Lombardy, as relatives of a deceased person walk outside on March 16, 2020, while burials of people who died of the new coronavirus are being conducted at the rythm of one every half hour. (Photo by Piero Cruciatti / AFP) (Photo by PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP via Getty Images)
Medical workers in overalls stretch a patient under intensive care into the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
Residents on window and balconies sing 'Il cielo sempre piu blu' (The sky becomes more and more blue) during a flash mob to raise morale as the lock down continues due to the coronavirus outbreak to the Garbatella neighbourhood on March 16, 2020, in Rome, Italy. The Italian Government has taken the unprecedented measure of a nationwide lockdown by closing all businesses except essential services such as, pharmacies, grocery stores, hardware stores and tobacconists and banks, in an effort to fight the world's second-most deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak outside of China. The movements in and out are allowed only for work and health reasons proven by a medical certificate. The number of confirmed cases of the Coronavirus COVID-19 disease in Italy has jumped up to at least 27.980 while the death toll have reached 2158. (Photo by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Residents on window and balconies sing 'Il cielo sempre piu blu' (The sky becomes more and more blue) during a flash mob to raise morale as the lock down continues due to the coronavirus outbreak to the Garbatella neighbourhood on March 16, 2020, in Rome, Italy. The Italian Government has taken the unprecedented measure of a nationwide lockdown by closing all businesses except essential services such as, pharmacies, grocery stores, hardware stores and tobacconists and banks, in an effort to fight the world's second-most deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak outside of China. The movements in and out are allowed only for work and health reasons proven by a medical certificate. The number of confirmed cases of the Coronavirus COVID-19 disease in Italy has jumped up to at least 27.980 while the death toll have reached 2158. (Photo by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Residents on window and balconies sing 'Il cielo sempre piu blu' (The sky becomes more and more blue) during a flash mob to raise morale as the lock down continues due to the coronavirus outbreak to the Garbatella neighbourhood on March 16, 2020, in Rome, Italy. The Italian Government has taken the unprecedented measure of a nationwide lockdown by closing all businesses except essential services such as, pharmacies, grocery stores, hardware stores and tobacconists and banks, in an effort to fight the world's second-most deadly coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak outside of China. The movements in and out are allowed only for work and health reasons proven by a medical certificate. The number of confirmed cases of the Coronavirus COVID-19 disease in Italy has jumped up to at least 27.980 while the death toll have reached 2158. (Photo by Andrea Ronchini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A medical worker in overalls exits an ambulance outside the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
ROME, ITALY - MARCH 16: Giulia Baini, 24, a volunteer from the Community of Sant'Egidio, speaks to Giovanna, a frail elderly woman of 82 years of age during a home-care service on March 16, 2020 in Rome, Italy. The Italian Government has taken the unprecedented measure of a nationwide lockdown by closing all businesses except essential services such as, pharmacies, grocery stores, hardware stores, tobacconists and banks, in an effort to fight the world's second-most deadly Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak outside of China. Journeys are allowed only for work reasons and health reasons proven by a medical certificate. Citizens are encourage to stay home and have an obligation to respect a safety distance of one metre from each other in supermarkets or in public spaces. (Photo by Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images)
SALERNO, ITALY - MARCH 16: A nurse inside a Civil Protection tent set up as a Pre-Triage in the Luigi Curto hospital on March 16, 2020 in Polla, Italy. Italian Government continues to enfoce the nationwide lockdown measures to control the coronavirus spread. The number of people infected with coronavirus in Italy is growing, new cases are reported in many southern regions. In the Campania Region, the local government has decided to quarantine five Municipalities so that preventing anyone from entering or leaving Ariano Irpino in the province of Avellino, Atena Lucana, Caggiano, Polla and Sala Consilina in the province of Salerno. (Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images)
SALERNO, ITALY - MARCH 16: A nurse inside a Civil Protection tent set up as a Pre-Triage in the Luigi Curto hospital on March 16, 2020 in Polla, Italy. Italian Government continues to enfoce the nationwide lockdown measures to control the coronavirus spread. The number of people infected with coronavirus in Italy is growing, new cases are reported in many southern regions. In the Campania Region, the local government has decided to quarantine five Municipalities so that preventing anyone from entering or leaving Ariano Irpino in the province of Avellino, Atena Lucana, Caggiano, Polla and Sala Consilina in the province of Salerno. (Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images)
A man runs across a deserted Lungotevere Marzio embankment on March 16, 2020 in Rome. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP) (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)
SALERNO, ITALY - MARCH 16: The interior of a Civil Protection tent set up as a Pre-Triage of the Luigi Curto hospital on March 16, 2020 in Polla, Italy. Italian Government continues to enfoce the nationwide lockdown measures to control the coronavirus spread. The number of people infected with coronavirus in Italy is growing, new cases are reported in many southern regions. In the Campania Region, the local government has decided to quarantine five Municipalities so that preventing anyone from entering or leaving Ariano Irpino in the province of Avellino, Atena Lucana, Caggiano, Polla and Sala Consilina in the province of Salerno. (Photo by Ivan Romano/Getty Images)
People wearing a face mask walk across the Gianicolo promenade on March 16, 2020 in Rome. (Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP) (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)
Empty check-in counters are seen at a terminal of the airport of Naples, Italy, on March 16, 2020 where air traffic slowed down due to the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Photo by Paolo Manzo/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - A patient (L) flashes the victory sign as she is being brought into the newly built Columbus Covid 2 temporary hospital to fight the new coronavirus infection, on March 16, 2020 at the Gemelli hospital in Rome. (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO / AFP) (Photo by ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP via Getty Images)
A woman takes a picture of a notice informing customers of the temporary closure over coronavirus concerns of the Disney store on Oxford Street in London, England, on March 16, 2020. Around the country, as elsewhere in the world, covid-19 coronavirus fears continue to escalate as the numbers of cases and deaths continues to rise. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile remains under pressure over the government's so-called herd immunity strategy, which bucks the closures-and-lockdowns approach adopted by countries such as Italy and Spain. (Photo by David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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"This means immediately releasing into the National Health System the energy of about 10,000 doctors, which is fundamental to dealing with the shortage that our country is suffering," he said in a statement.

The graduates will be sent to work in general practitioners' clinics and at old peoples' homes, freeing up more experienced colleagues who will be sent to the rapidly filling hospitals.

Over three weeks, 1,135 people have needed intensive care in Lombardy, the northern region hardest hit. The region has only 800 intensive care beds, according to Giacomo Grasselli, head of the intensive care unit at Milan's Policlinico hospital.

Authorities have been working to set up hundreds of intensive care beds in a specially created facility in the Fiera Milano exhibition center, but are still waiting for sufficient respirators and qualified personnel.

Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi said on Tuesday he would donate 10 million euros ($11 million) to help equip the new center, joining a growing list of wealthy Italians offering funds to bolster the struggling health sector.

In Rome, oil major ENI has paid for the multi-million euro conversion of the small, private Columbus hospital into a center for treating coronavirus patients, with the first sufferers being stretchered into the unit on Monday.

Looking to map the spread of the illness, the head of the northern Veneto region announced on Tuesday that he would ramp up the number of tests done daily to some 11,300 from 3,000 at present.

"Even if we find just one positive case, it means we will have 10 less infections," said Luca Zaia, shrugging off the cost of the increased screening. "I don't really care about the budget. It is less important than the lives of our citizens."

Neighboring Lombardy, which accounts for more than half the total national tally of coronavirus cases, has ruled out extensive testing, saying it does not have the resources or time for widespread controls. ($1 = 0.9069 euros) 

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