(BERGAMO, Italy) — BY: PHOEBE NATANSON

Papa Giovanni XXIII, the main hospital in Bergamo, Italy, has declared its intensive care unit COVID-free some 137 days after the first novel coronavirus patient was admitted.

When the announcement was made on Wednesday, hospital directors and staff members marked the occasion by remembering the victims with a minute’s silence before breaking into a long applause “because we all deserved it,” Luca Lorini, director of the hospital’s emergency department, told the Italian news agency ANSA. “We dreamed of this goal and worked for such a long time to reach it.”

The few remaining patients who’d battled the novel coronavirus have now tested negative, according to the hospital.

Elsewhere, the country’s health ministry announced on Thursday there had been 229 new infections, mostly in hard-hit Lombardy, and 12 deaths over the preceding 24 hours.

“Despite all the controversy about the management of this tsunami, it is unlikely we could have handled it any better considering the little information we had to go on,” Lorini told ANSA. “The number of dead and injured seemed incredible to us and made us doubt our own abilities.”

As the contagion began raging through Italy, Bergamo was considered the epicenter, with the number of victims rising dramatically every day. The province was one of the hardest hit by the health emergency, and the main hospital, flooded with patients after the first arrived Feb. 23, transformed itself into once of Europe’s largest ICUs by deploying a staff of about 400 doctors, nurses, assistants and cleaners.

The northern town, according to ANSA, reported about 6,000 coronavirus victims and had about 100 patients intubated at the peak of the epidemic, as the surrounding region, Lombardy, has accounted for about half of Italy’s nearly 35,000 COVID-19 deaths.

Maria Beatrice Stassi, general manager of the hospital, told ANSA that doctors, nurses and staffers finally could turn their attention toward treating other illnesses and that they could return to their normal uniforms.

Stassi added that hopefully the downward trend of COVID-19 infections continued so those at her hospital never again would return to “that March-April nightmare we had to work in.”

At the height of the emergency, army trucks were called in to Bergamo to transport coffins to remote cremation sites because local morgues were overwhelmed.

Funerals, which at that time weren’t permitted, are now being held.

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