ROME – A longtime friend of Father Giuseppe Berardelli, who died in northern Italy from the COVID-19 coronavirus earlier this month, has described the priest as a caring and involved pastor, while also debunking what he says is “fake news” about the priest’s death.

Over the last 24 hours, Italian media have featured stories prominently about Berardelli, 72, claiming that he “donated” a ventilator being used to treat his COVID-19, allegedly declining to accept it so that it could be used to treat someone younger.

In reality, said Giuseppe Foresti, sacristan of Berardelli’s parish of St. John the Baptist in Casnigo, about 15 miles from Bergamo in northern Italy, the elderly priest simply couldn’t tolerate the ventilator, in part because of preexisting health conditions, and refused to use it.

Foresti emphasized that doesn’t make Berardelli any less of a role model.

“I can tell you that certainly Don Giuseppe was a special person, he really gave himself to the entire community,” Foresti told Crux March 24.

The two men two had known each other for more than 16 years, when Berardelli first came to the parish in 2006.

“He was a very special person (and) a man of great virtue,” Foresti said, noting that Berardelli not only built a large oratory attached to the parish dedicated to St. John Bosco and St. John Paul II, but he also pioneered several other parish and community projects.

After Berardelli died, rumors began to that he refused to accept a ventilator that his parish community bought for him, insisting that it be given to someone younger. The story was attributed to a healthcare worker at the San Giuseppe rest house in Casnigo.

According to Foresti, “the story about the respirator isn’t true.” While Berardelli was an outstanding person and pastor, the story is “half-fake news.”

“The problem is that when he got to the hospital, they tried to put the respirator on him, but he refused (to take it) because he couldn’t handle it,” he said, noting that Berardelli was already in bad shape when he arrived.

Two workers from the San Giuseppe rest home told Crux they were unfamiliar with the details story, and only knew what they read in the papers. A representative in the medical ward of the Capitanio and Gerosa hospital, where Berardelli died, told Crux they were unable to provide any information given their privacy policies.

Foresti said parishioners at St. John the Baptist are “very sad, because Don Giuseppe was a charismatic person with a great faith.”

“A few other people have started to die,” he said, noting that on Monday a layman heavily involved with the parish passed away from a heart attack, while others have either contracted or passed away from the coronavirus.

Casnigo, Foresti said, has been lucky in terms of coronavirus casualties. Despite being in Italy’s Lombardy region, the epicenter of the country’s outbreak, and sitting so close to Bergamo, which has suffered heavy losses, Casnigo itself has so far only had around 11 deaths related to the virus.

“Here, our situation is more or less stable,” he said, noting that the only major problem the city is facing is the waiting period for cremations, which right now is roughly 15 days.

In neighboring Bergamo, bodies of the deceased have had to be taken to other cities by military trucks because there are too many to cremate, and the waitlist too long. In some cases, family members of virus victims have faced a three-week wait just for a private funeral in the city’s cemetery.

“We hope the numbers go down, we hope,” he said, noting that for the past two days the number of coronavirus deaths in Italy has decreased, so “It seems that there will be a little drop.”

Italy has the highest coronavirus death toll in the world. As of Monday evening, the Italian Ministry of Health reported that some 5,476 people have died and more than 59,000 have tested positive for COVID-19 in Italy since February.

So far, an estimated 60 priests in Italy have been among the casualties and at least two bishops have been infected, one of whom has recovered and the other is still receiving treatment.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen

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