Italy battles 'explosion' of coronavirus cases as third patient dies

MILAN, February 24 ------ Italy raced on Sunday to contain the biggest outbreak of coronavirus in Europe, sealing off the worst affected towns and banning public events in much of the north as a third patient died of the illness. Authorities in the wealthy regions of Lombardy and Veneto, which are the focal point of the flare-up, ordered schools and universities to close for at least a week, shut museums and cinemas and called off the last two days of the Venice Carnival.

The civil protection unit said the number of cases of the highly contagious virus totaled 152, all but three of them coming to light since Friday. “I was surprised by this explosion of cases,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told state broadcaster RAI, warning that the numbers would likely rise in the coming days. “We will do everything we can to contain the contagion,” he said. The latest death was an elderly woman from the town of Crema, some 45 km (28 miles) east of Italy’s financial capital Milan. Like at least one of the other people who have died, she had been suffering from serious underlying health issues, officials said.

The number of certified cases of the illness in Lombardy rose to 110 from 54 a day earlier, while in Veneto some 21 people were diagnosed with the virus, including two people in Venice, which was packed with tourists for carnival season. Health officials reported isolated cases in the neighboring regions of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna. The regional governor of Veneto, Luca Zaia, said he had dealt with numerous natural disasters during his long career, including floods and earthquakes. “But this is the absolutely worst problem that Veneto has faced,” he told reporters.

Almost a dozen towns in Lombardy and Veneto with a combined population of some 50,000 have effectively been placed under quarantine, with locals urged to stay home and special permission needed to enter or leave the designated areas. In Milan, residents rushed to stock up on essentials, while some parents decided to take their children out of the city. “Today is madness. It feels like we’re in Baghdad. We can’t restock shelves quick enough,” said a shop assistant at the Esselunga Solari supermarket in Milan, declining to give her name because she was not authorized to speak to the media.