ROME – Government officials climbed on Sunday to contain the first major coronavirus outbreak in Europe, blocking at least 10 cities near Milan, closing schools and canceling the iconic Venice carnival, as nearly 150 cases have been announced in the last few days. .
The new cases are found mainly in the Lombardy region, which includes Milan, and is one of the most densely populated areas in Italy. The spike – from fewer than five known cases before Thursday – quickly made the country the largest test of whether the virus can be successfully contained in an open European society.
The coronavirus crisis began in China in late December and since then over 2,000 people have died worldwide, with most cases dying in China. The country’s authoritarian government has taken extraordinary quarantine measures and imposed strict travel restrictions, but still has difficulty containing the virus.
In Asia, outside of China, the most affected country was South Korea, where there were 602 confirmed infections and six deaths. On Sunday, President Moon Jae-in put the country on high alert as much as possible, giving the government the power to block cities and take other radical measures to contain the outbreak.
“The next few days will be a critical time for us,” he said at an emergency meeting of government officials.
The same challenge is looming now for Italy, the fourth largest European economy, where the government, a wobbly and often quarrelsome coalition between the Democratic Party and the five-star movement, has been in disarray for months.
Five Star has often confused the waters about important health problems, such as vaccinations, embracing conspiracy theories and playing on voters’ distrust of the government. Whether the government can merge and implement preventive measures to stem the further spread of the virus will be one of the biggest crises it has faced.
So far the government’s response has been aggressive, led by Health Minister Roberto Speranza.
Regional and municipal authorities across Italy issued a series of restrictive orders after the government issued emergency measures late Saturday evening. All public events in the Lombardy region have been canceled, “cultural, leisure, religious or sporting”, according to an order issued by Attilio Fontana, president of the Lombardy region, drafted with the Ministry of Health. Museums have been ordered to close their doors.
Many other locations in Lombardy, in addition to those providing essential services, have been closed, including most bars, night clubs and cinemas, as well as churches. In some other regions, similar closures have occurred.
“We invite people to stay at home, to try to contain this phenomenon that we still do not know, except for the fact that it is not aggressive but moves quickly,” said Giulio Gallera, official head of health for the Lombardy region, a press conference television on Sunday.
In Lombardy, 10 cities were locked up after a group of cases emerged in the city of Codogno, about 60 kilometers south-east of Milan. At least 50,000 people are affected by the blockade. Residents had to leave or arrive only with a special permit.
On Sunday, police and armed forces personnel were dispatched to monitor city entrances.
“The utmost precaution has been taken to protect citizens,” wrote Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Twitter on Sunday.
Two military structures in Lombardy were in preparation for becoming isolation camps, while other military sites and hotels have been identified across the country. A military base in Rome hosted displaced people from Wuhan, China, where the virus started, and Italian passengers from the Diamond Princess, the cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama, Japan.
The outbreak in Codogno began after a 38-year-old man known as a “patient” was admitted and diagnosed with the virus at the city hospital on Thursday. But the man had developed symptoms perhaps five days earlier, potentially allowing the virus to spread.
Even more puzzling is that health officials still don’t know how he contracted the virus because he hadn’t been to China. But many cases in Lombardy, officials say, could be traced back to that case.
At least five medical staff from Codogno hospital and several patients have been infected. Other people who have tested positive are the man’s pregnant wife, a close friend and other people who have spent time with them. The cities surrounding those where man works and lives have been included in the closure.
Similar blocking procedures will be applied if new clusters emerge anywhere in Italy, officials said. According to the government decree, local officials are obliged to “take all appropriate containment measures” in the event that someone has tested the virus positively and the source of the infection is unknown.
Quarantine measures will also be applied to anyone who has close contact with someone who has the virus.
Gallera, a health official from Lombardy, said that hospitals are increasing intensive care facilities and that hotels and other facilities have been identified as possible places to isolate people with the virus.
“We are taking preventive action” to avoid handling a bigger emergency, he said.
“We are trying to contain a phenomenon, but it is not a pandemic,” said Gallera.
The presidents of the other regions of northern Italy suspended all educational activities – from kindergarten to university – for various periods of time. In Milan, Mayor Giuseppe Sala announced that schools would be closed for a week.
At least two fairs in Milan, milestones of the economy of the Lombard city, have been postponed to a later date, although most of the women’s fashion shows have continued on schedule. Giorgio Armani held his show behind closed doors in an empty room, instead he broadcast the event live.
Carnival is one of the main annual events in Venice and the cancellation of events caught off guard by many tourists who had crowded into the city before the last celebration of Shrove Tuesday.
Two elderly coronavirus test results were in intensive care at the Venice municipal hospital.
“The couple had no contact with the Chinese community,” said Luca Zaia, president of the Veneto region, according to Italian media.
Also on Sunday, the patriarch of Venice, Reverend Francesco Moraglia, suspended all religious ceremonies, including the celebrations of Ash Wednesday which mark the beginning of Lent.
So far, three people have died from the virus, including a 78-year-old Venetian man who died on Friday and an elderly woman who died in Crema on Sunday.
The third, a 77-year-old woman died in her home in the city of Casalpusterlengo, in Lombardy, and proved positive for the posthumous virus. But Mr. Gallera told reporters on Saturday that his health has been compromised and that he may have died of other causes.