Two deaths from the new coronavirus sparked fears throughout northern Italy on Saturday, as towns shuttered shops and schools to try to halt a rise in new infections.
The death of a 75-year-old woman on Saturday near the small town of Codogno in Lombardy came one day after a 78-year-old man succumbed to the virus in the neighbouring region of Veneto, marking the first in Italy and Europe.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte expressed his sympathies for the two deaths and said he had called an emergency meeting, as more than 50,000 people from about a dozen towns in two northern regions were asked to stay at home by the local authorities.
The government was considering “extraordinary measures” to fight the onslaught of new cases, Conte said on Facebook.
Lombardy’s health department has scheduled a press conference for later on Saturday.
Sky Italia reported that the number people infected with the virus in the region had grown to 32 from 16, but official confirmation was not immediately available and Italy’s health ministry did not return a call from AFP seeking information.
In Codogno, streets were mostly deserted and few shops were open after the mayor put the town of 15,000 on temporary lockdown on Friday.
A 38-year-old man from the town is in intensive care, and his pregnant wife and another man have also tested positive for the virus.
Three others have tested positive in initial tests, but are awaiting results of a second round.
“No entry” read the sign outside Codogno’s emergency room.
Only a bakery and a few businesses were open, with many shops posting signs saying they were closed due to the lockdown, which could last as long as five days.
In the nearby region of Veneto, a 78-year-old retired bricklayer from the Padua area died on Friday, becoming the first local person in Europe to die from what has been named COVID-19 by the World Health Organization.
Italy’s health minister said the man, Adriano Trevisan, had been admitted to hospital 10 days earlier for an unrelated health issue.
Two other people in the Veneto region were confirmed with the virus, the president of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia told RaiNews 24 on Saturday, adding that none had been in contact with anyone who had recently arrived from China.
But Sky Italia later said the number of confirmed cases in Veneto had jumped to seven.
Two Chinese tourists are still being treated for the virus in isolation in Rome. A third man who was also quarantined has since recovered, but is still being held at the same hospital, the Spallanzani Institute in Rome.
Since December, COVID-19 has killed more than 2,200 people in China, the epidemic’s epicentre.
Elsewhere in the world, it has killed more than a dozen people and spread across some 27 countries and territories. Last Sunday, an 80-year-old Chinese tourist died from the new coronavirus in France.
In the areas under lockdown in northern Italy, public activities such as carnival celebrations, church masses and sporting events have been banned for up to a week.
In the town of Casalpusterlegno, a billboard instructed residents “to stay in your own homes”.
In most towns, bars, restaurants and libraries have been closed, and in the small city of Cremona, about 25 minutes east of Codogno, school has been cancelled.
Reporting by AFP
Image: A deserted street in the town of Codogno, near Lodi, Northern Italy, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. A dozen northern Italian towns were on effective lockdown Saturday after the new virus linked to China claimed two fatalities in Italy and sickened an increasing number of people who had no direct links to the origin of the virus (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)