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Italy brings in draconian measures in effort to halt coronavirus spread


Italian authorities have implemented draconian measures to try to halt the coronavirus outbreak in the north of the country, including imposing fines on anyone caught entering or leaving outbreak areas, as cases of the virus in the country rose to more than 130.

Police are patrolling 11 towns – mostly in the Lombardy region, where the first locally transmitted case emerged – that have been in lockdown since Friday night.

Measures were stepped up after a 78-year-old Italian man infected with the virus died in the Veneto region. A postmortem performed on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy on Saturday also confirmed that she was infected, but it is unclear if the virus caused her death. The woman is reported to have been recovering from pneumonia and had visited the emergency unit of a hospital in Codogno, near Lodi, a few hours after the first man confirmed to have contracted the disease, a 38-year-old, had passed through.

As of Sunday morning, there were 89 confirmed cases in Lombardy – two in its industrial capital of Milan – 16 in Veneto, three in Piedmont – including two in Turin – and two in Emilia-Romagna.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the outbreak of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided they are used correctly.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has advised UK nationals to leave China where possible. It is also warning that travellers from Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand who develop symptoms of cough or fever or shortness of breath within 14 days of returning the UK should contact the NHS by phone.

Justin McCurry

“Unfortunately this means that on a national basis the number has exceeded 100,” Attilio Fontana, the president of Lombardy, told Sky.

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About 50,000 residents across the towns under lockdown have been told to stay home and avoid social contact, while schools, shops and businesses, apart from chemists, have been closed and festivities and sporting events including Serie A football matches and the final two days of the Venice carnival cancelled.

Milan’s fashion week has also been affected by the outbreak. Giorgio Armani, whose show was scheduled for 4pm on Sunday afternoon, announced on Saturday night that guests should not come to the venue. Instead, the collection would be shown to an empty room.

“The decision was taken to safeguard the wellbeing of all his [Armani’s] invited guests by not having them attend crowded spaces,” said a press release.

Models still presented the clothes, with the show streamed on the brand’s website, as well as Instagram and Facebook.

Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, said: “We have adopted a decree to protect the health of Italians, which is our priority and which ranks first in the list of constitutional values.” He urged people to “have faith in the political and scientific institutions, which are doing everything possible”.

Locals wearing facemasks were already lined up outside a supermarket in the town of Castelpusterlengo, a 10 minute drive from Codogno, on Sunday morning. Shoppers were made to wait, then allowed to enter in groups of 40 inside the store to stock up on provisions.

Although one woman in the crowd downplayed the virus, telling other shoppers it was “not fatal” if properly treated, others were less sanguine. “It’s inhuman,” one man who gave his name as Sante told AFP. “Fighting over four sandwiches is just disgusting.”

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Hundreds of colleagues who worked with the first infected man, a researcher at Unilever, are being tested but it is still unclear who he contracted the illness from. The man, who is in intensive care, was initially thought to have caught the virus after meeting a colleague who had recently returned from China, but the colleague tested negative.

“Unfortunately, the person who was considered to be ‘patient zero’ was not,” said Fontana. “We need to look elsewhere. We are following two hypotheses, and we will try to understand if one of the two is correct.”

A keen runner, the 38-year-old recently took part in a number of races. His pregnant wife is also infected, as is a person who went running with the man. Three other cases in Lombardy are elderly people who frequented a bar in the town of Codogno, near Lodi, that is owned by the father of the man who went running with the 38-year-old.

The man who died in Veneto was diagnosed with pneumonia a few weeks ago but had not travelled to China nor come into contact with anyone who had.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t managed to limit the spread of the virus,” Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, which has also closed, told the Guardian.

“And we need to face the fact that it is spreading quickly. At first, we thought that the virus was only abroad, but now it is also in Italy. People should try not to panic but limiting the spread is, in part, down to our behaviour. Those who have been in contact with someone infected must isolate themselves. Crowded places should also be avoided; sacrifices need to be made to try to overcome the virus.”

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The first two cases of the virus in Italy were that of a Chinese couple from Wuhan who arrived in the country on 23 January. They are being treated at Rome’s Spallanzani hospital for infectious diseases. A group they were travelling with were released from hospital this month after being quarantined for 14 days. A third case in Rome was that of an Italian man who had caught the virus in China.

Giuseppe Sala, the mayor of Milan, where fashion week wraps up on Monday, has asked for all schools to be closed for a week. “It’s a prudent measure, then we’ll see if a week is sufficient. There are so many events in the city. I don’t imagine everything shutting down and being cancelled, but events that are not obligatory and which can be postponed, should be.”



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