By Flavio Lo Scalzo and Alex Fraser

CERNUSCO SUL NAVIGLIO, Italy (Reuters) – It is just a kiss blown over a video call on a computer tablet to a loved one miles away.

But to elderly patients suffering from the coronavirus in the Uboldo Hospital in this northern Italian town, it is as much of a lifeline as their oxygen masks.

Doctors up and down Italy, the country with the most deaths from the pandemic, say one of the hardest things for patients is not being able to have their loved ones by their side because of quarantine restrictions.

“From a psychological point of view, this certainly is the worst aspect of this emergency,” said the hospital’s chief anaesthetist, Dr. Massimo Zambon.

So, Zambon and his colleagues are using tablets donated by the city and private citizens to ease the pain of distance and loneliness. Most of the patients are elderly and do not know how to use the tablets, so hospital staff make the calls and hold them up to their faces.

“Right now, this is the only possible solution, the easiest and most effective way to create contact between the patient and the family,” Zambon said.

“And I must say, this is very much appreciated by the patients, but above all by relatives at home who are worried and are awaiting news,” he said, speaking in a hospital corridor.

More than 17,000 people have died of the coronavirus in Italy. The relatively small Uboldo Hospital is in the Lombardy region, which has borne the brunt of the epidemic.

Around 90% of Uboldo’s patients are coronavirus victims. Since the crisis began, the hospital has tripled the number of its beds to try to cope.

On Tuesday morning, doctors in protective gear removed an oxygen mask from the face of an elderly man and held up a tablet.

The man waved and a relative on the other end of the call blew him a kiss. It lasted less than a minute and then the oxygen mask went back on.

“Video calls are obviously short because there is so much to do. These calls are a bit cold because there is no real contact between people when they talk, so obviously everything is more difficult,” Zambon said.

In another room, a 69-year-old woman was being tested to see if she had the virus, and staff held up a tablet so she could see her family.

“If I have it, I’ll stay here, otherwise I’ll come home,” the woman said. “They’re all efficient here, they’re all kind … they’re all angels here, really, if it was not for them and the sacrifices they make…”

There was no need for her to finish the sentence. Everyone on both sides knew exactly what she meant.

(Writing by Philip Pullella; Editing by Leslie Adler)