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Pope, others hail Italian health workers on COVID anniversary

ROME — Pope Francis and Italy’s president on Saturday marked a newly established annual day to honor doctors, nurses and other health care workers, exactly one year after the nation’s first known native case of COVID-19 emerged.

In a message to honor those caring for COVID-19 patients, Frances hailed the “generous involvement, at times heroic, of the profession lived as mission.”

On the evening of Feb. 20, 2020, a hospital in Codogno, northern Italy confirmed that a 38-year-old Italian man was infected with the coronavirus. The man had no links to anyone who had been in China, where the COVID-19 outbreak first erupted.

A year on, Italy has so far seen more than 95,000 known dead, the second-high coronavirus toll in Europe after Britain.

Expressing gratitude to doctors, nurses and other health care workers, Francis likened their dedication to “a vaccine against individualism and selfishness.″ He said that such dedication ”demonstrates the most authentic desire that dwells in the heart of man — be near to those who have the most need and give of oneself for them.”

President Sergio Mattarella marked the first National Day of Health Care Personnel by mourning the many medical workers who contracted COVID-19 and died.

According to professional associations in the sector, at least 326 doctors and 81 nurses have died of COVID-19.

Mattarella said the professionalism and self-denial shown by the medical workers contributed to efforts “to avoid the epidemic’s precipitating into an irreversible catastrophe.”

The Italian leader said despite its many shortcomings, the national health care system has proven to be an institution “to preserve and to invest in, in order to protect” Italians collectively.

Some of the 209 billion euros ($250 billion) in European Union funding to help Italy rebuild from the economic and other devastation of the pandemic will be earmarked to shore up and improve Italy’s public health care system.

More COVID-19 anniversary commemorations are scheduled for Sunday in Italy, especially in the hard-hit north, where the outbreak first pummeled the nation.