ROME - The Italian government is ramping up public health measures in a bid to halt the abrupt spike in Coronavirus infections, which rose by 50% Sunday from 24 hours earlier, the biggest one day jump in cases since the virus emerged in Italy.
Italy's Civil Protection Authority reported the country has 1,694 confirmed cases, up from 1,128, despite a weeks-long lockdown of a dozen towns in the worst affected regions of Lombardy and Veneto in the north of the country. Five more people infected with COVID-19 have died, bringing the deaths from the virus in Italy to 34, while 83 people have fully recovered, officials say, and 140 are in serious or critical condition.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced Sunday that the government is now going to split the country into three parts, a red zone in the north, covering the currently closed-off towns in Lombardy and Veneto, and then a yellow zone, covering the rest of Lombardy and Veneto, as well as the region of Emilia Romagna and two provinces on the Adriatic coast.
In the yellow zone all sports events and competitions are to be suspended and cinemas, theaters and discos closed. Churches and other places of worship will be allowed to function but will be required to minimize the numbers of attendees. Schools will remain closed. Bars and restaurants will be allowed to carry on business but customers must be seated with tables set apart from each other by at least one meter.
Under the terms of the decree issued by the government Sunday, large shopping malls in some provinces must remain closed on weekends. All educational trips are to be suspended until March 15.
In the rest of the country the government’s focus is on intensifying preventive measures. Hand-sanitizers must be made available in all public buildings and town mayors must promote information on hygiene in business premises.
“Public transport companies will take extraordinary sanitization measures,” the decree states.
The spiking numbers are likely to fuel a growing fear in Italy that the virus might not be containable. Last week when there were only 374 confirmed cases, the prime minister urged his countrymen to remain calm as more Italians joined in bouts of panic food shopping, especially in the north and center of the country.
Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, also warned Italians Friday against allowing “irrational fears” to take hold of them.
“Knowledge helps responsibility and is a strong antidote to irrational and unmotivated fears that lead to unreasonable behavior without benefits, as has sometimes happened these days,” the president said.
Lombardy and Veneto account for two-thirds of the confirmed cases but there is growing evidence of a spread, with cases now recorded in the south in the region of Campania. Emilia Romagna now has 285 cases, more than Veneto’s 263. Tuscany has 13, while the regions of Marche and Liguria have reported 25 each.
Public health officials said Sunday they had anticipated a spike in infections as containment measures tend to take at least two weeks to start having an effect.
“This acceleration was expected, unfortunately,” Giovanni Rezza, director of the infectious disease department at the National Health Institute, told AP.
But those predictions weren’t made public last week when the Conte government was urging countries, including the U.S., to refrain from advising their citizens not to travel to Italy. On Friday, American Airlines announced a suspension of all flights to Milan. The next day the U.S. State Department issued its strongest travel warning yet, advising Americans against any travel to the two regions in northern Italy that have been hard hit by the virus that first emerged in China in December.
Delta Air Lines announced Sunday it is to suspend flights to Milan. The last flight out will depart New York on Monday and the last return flight will be on Tuesday. Rome flights are not affected.
The virus emergency has left the Italian economy reeling with the chances mounting that it will push the country into its fourth recession since the 2008 global financial crash. On Sunday, Roberto Gualtieri, Italy’s economy minister, announced that the government will inject almost $4 billion into its economy to try to mitigate the impact of the largest outbreak of coronavirus in Europe.
He told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the government will introduce tax credits for businesses that report a 25% drop in revenues as well as tax cuts. Extra cash will be made available for the county’s health service. The eurozone’s third-largest economy was contracting even before the appearance of the disease.