Coronavirus Reaches European Shores With 152 Cases in Italy

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A bizarre scene unfolds as costumed revellers taking part in the Venice Carnival disperse among stoic, masked officers. (Via The Associated Press)

Italian authorities are scrambling to contain an explosion of Coronavirus cases on Sunday, February 23 that has seen schools closed, the quarantining of towns, and cancelling of public events. According to Reuters, the total cases jumped from 3 to 152 since Friday with the Associated Press reporting 133 at the least. 3 confirmed deaths have been reported.

Lombardy and Veneto, two regions in northern Italy, are at the epicenter of the outbreak. Cases in Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna were also reported. Roadblocks have been established in at least 10 towns and some 50,000 people are barred from leaving without special permission. Trains passing through the towns were not permitted to stop.

The outbreak has caused many public events and attractions to close, including but not limited to the Venice Carnival (which otherwise would have run until the 25th), sports events, and the closing of theaters. All of these are major tourist attractions for Italy, bringing in millions worldwide annually. Public masses were also banned in Lombardy and Venice. The ban is expected to last for at least 7 days in Milan, Italy’s financial capital located in the Lombardy region.

Some guests wore face masks to a Dolce and Gabbana runway show in Milan. (via AFP)

Italy’s first 2 cases were a Chinese tourist couple in Rome, who are reportedly recovering in a city hospital. All 3 deaths thus far have been elderly-aged citizens, one of whom had already been diagnosed with cancer prior to testing positive with the virus.

Italian officials have been stumped as to the source of the outbreak in the north, however, which began when a Codogno man in his late 30s became critically ill after dining with a friend who had recently returned from business in Shanghai, The Associated Press reports.  The man he dined with tested negative for the virus.

The health officials haven’t been yet able to pinpoint ‘patient zero,”

— Angelo Borrelli, head of the National Civil Protection Agency

Fears of the infected crossing into neighboring Austria caused transportation officials in the country to briefly halt all rail traffic between the two countries. Two passengers on a train bound for Munich who had reportedly been experiencing symptoms similar to the virus tested negative. The ban was lifted just before midnight that day. However, the Austrian government is still considering instating border controls on Italy, which will be discussed in meetings on Monday.

The German health ministry conducted a phone conference with Europe’s head health officials, and French Health Minister Olivier Veran told the French Le Parisien that he said “he was monitoring closely the “very serious” situation,” according to AP.

Switzerland, however, has taken a cooler stance, with head of the department for contagious diseases Daniel Koch stating that “The news from Italy is worrisome … but it is too early to think that a wave is rolling our way.”

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told state broadcaster RAI that he was “surprised by this explosion of cases,” but reassured that “We will do everything we can to contain the contagion.” When informed that four bottles of hand disinfectant were going for up to 200 euros online, he responded that “Worry is understandable, panic, no.”

Residents queue outside a supermarket in Casalpusterlengo, which has been quarantined by police. (via Reuters)

The lockdown of the 10 towns, which allows only grocery stores and pharmacies to remain open, bears resemblance to that of Chinese cities stricken by the virus, with town streets lying empty on a day that many Italians traditionally take for a leisurely walk about the neighborhood. Codogno resident Melissa Catanacci remarks that “Every quarter-hour or so a car goes by.”

A BBC correspondent just outside the quarantine zone told them that there’s only one fruit and vegetable shop is open in Codogno, a town of 16,000, according to a resident.