Wednesday, 26 February 2020, 15:42 Last update: about 3 hours ago
Italy sought Wednesday to rally international support for its efforts to contain the country’s virus outbreak even as its death toll rose to 12 and the caseload reached 374, more Europeans linked to Italy got sick and the World Health Organization urged a scaled-up response.
Premier Giuseppe Conte’s government, which has been struggling to contain the rapidly spreading virus, urged cooperation from its European neighbors, not isolation and discrimination.
“Viruses don’t know borders and they don’t stop at them,” Health Minister Roberto Speranza insisted at the start of a crisis meeting with WHO and European Union representatives in Rome.
Twelve people have died in Italy, all of them elderly, with other ailments or both, civil protection chief Angelo Borelli said.
The Italian government has been defending its handling of the crisis, even as it acknowledges alarm over its growing caseload — more than any other country outside Asia — and inability to locate the origin.
Elsewhere in Europe, Greece registered its first positive COVID-19 case, in a woman who had recently traveled to Italy’s afflicted north, after Austria, Croatia and Switzerland reported their first cases Tuesday from people who had also recently visited the region.
Spain reported nine cases since Monday, all with an Italy link and two of France’s five new cases had ties to Italy. Local authorities in Austria took quarantine measures after two unconfirmed cases had an Italy link, only to remove them when tests came back negative.
Overnight, Italy registered 52 more cases, bringing its total to 374. Hard-hit Lombardy, where 10 towns are on army-manned lockdown, still had the most cases with 258 — four of them children. But Veneto saw a spike of 28 new cases overnight, bringing its total to 71.
In France, a 60-year-old Frenchman died in a Paris hospital, France’s second virus-related death. His case puzzled and worried French authorities, because he was one of two new patients who tested positive for the virus in France this week who had not traveled to a “risk zone,” including Italy or China, according authorities in his home region north of Paris.
The Italian national health system has been overwhelmed with distribution problems slowing the delivery of masks and protective gear for medical personnel in the hard-hit areas. In addition, officials are battling to contain panic among Italians who are stocking up on bottled water, long-life milk and other non-perishable food that have left some supermarket shelves empty.
Italy is in some ways a victim of its own scrupulousness, with virologists noting that it is registering so many cases because it’s actively looking for them.
Borelli noted that Italy had tested 9,462 people already — more than 95% of whom have tested negative. Of those who are positive, two-thirds are being treated at home without requiring hospitalization.
WHO Europe chief Dr. Hans Kluge complimented Italy for its management of the emergency, but said it needed to “scale up” its response. He also noted shortcomings, particularly in outfitting medical personnel with necessary masks and protective gear.
Doctors and nurses are “the front-line heroes” of the response, Kluge said at a news conference with the Italian health minister at his side.
“We need to train them and provide them with the necessary protective equipment,” he said.
He said it was important to avoid creating panic and keeping the measures proportional to the risk.
Borelli, the civil protection chief, acknowledged the mask supply problems Wednesday. He said the government had met with producers to centralize the distribution system to make sure the gear gets to the provinces where they were needed.
The alarm, caution and panic wasn’t unique to Italy.
At a high school in Vienna, students were kept inside to be tested for the virus after a teacher who recently returned from a trip to Italy started showing symptoms of the virus, Austrian media reported. but the test came back negative.
Elsewhere, authorities in Austria placed an apartment complex in the southern town of Bad Kleinkirchheim under quarantine after a 56-year-old woman from Italy died overnight. That test, too, came back negative and the quarantine was lifted.
In Croatia, where a second case was confirmed in the twin brother of a young man who contracted the virus in Milan, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic warned against panic shopping.
“Panic should stop,” Plenkovic said. “Don’t go shopping in such a way that others cannot buy groceries.”
German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the country is preparing for the possibility of an increase in cases. A German man with the virus was in critical condition and his wife also tested positive. Schools and kindergartens in the area where he became ill were remaining shut.
“The appearance of the coronavirus in Italy has certainly created a new situation in Europe, the virus has come a lot closer,” Seibert told reporters. “This means a new challenge for all states in Europe, including for Germany.”
He said Germany would continue to try to isolate and treat affected individual to prevent the virus from spreading. “At the same time we are preparing for the possibility that there might be an increase in the number of cases,” said Seibert.