Italy tries to contain virus as neighbors fear its spread

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CODOGNO, Italy (AP) – Police manned checkpoints around quarantined towns in Italy’s north on Monday and residents stocked up on food as the country became the focal point of the outbreak in Europe and fears of its cross-border spread.

Croatia, Hungary and Ireland advised against travel to the affected areas, and Italians traveling abroad were already feeling the effects of a crackdown: A bus from Milan was barricaded by police in the French city of Lyon for health checks and Alitalia passengers arriving in Mauritius were threatened with quarantine.

Civil protection officials said 219 people had tested positive for the virus in Italy and five people had died, including two elderly men in northern Lombardy. It was the highest number of cases outside Asia, and underscored the limits of Italy’s prevention protocols, the most stringent in Europe.

Officials still hadn’t pinpointed the origin of Italy’s outbreak and were struggling to contain the number of cases, which by Monday had spread to a half-dozen regions and prompted Austria to temporarily halt rail traffic across its border with Italy.

“These rapid developments over the weekend have shown how quickly this situation can change,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said in Brussels. “We need to take this situation of course very seriously, but we must not give in to panic, and, even more importantly, to disinformation.”

For Italians barricaded in the dozen small towns around the two main clusters of the outbreak, Lombardy and Veneto, the outlook for the next two weeks appeared bleak, with the only order of business getting enough food in the house and getting tested.

“This wasn’t a very exciting place to begin with,” said Andrea Casalis, a 27-year-old from Vo’Euganeo, a town of 3,500 people at the epicenter of the Veneto cluster. “Since we can’t go to the bar, there’s no much left to do.”

Casalis had been due to start a new job in the food sector a few miles out of town, but that is now on hold – evidence of the cascading economic effect the outbreak is beginning to wreak on the northern powerhouse of Italy’s economy.

“I try to stay optimistic, but the perception of what’s going on changes subjectively,” he said.

The Irish, Hungarian and Croatian foreign ministries on Monday advised against travel to Italy’s north while the Croatian education ministry recommended that all school trips to Italy planned in the next month be cancelled. Visitors coming in from Italy, China or South Korea were being monitored, as they were in Albania.

In France, the government urged anyone who had visited Lombardy or Veneto to wear face masks if they go outside, limit nonessential activities and take their temperatures twice a day. The French Health Ministry issued the same warning for anyone who had traveled to China, South Korea, Singapore or Macao. France has had 12 cases of the virus overall, and one death.

In Lyon, the national health agency said officials were “evaluating the situation” of Italians barricaded on a bus that originated in Milan and stopped in Turin. The agency wouldn’t give details, or say whether anyone on the bus is suspected of having the virus.

Romanian Prime Minister Ludovic Orban said anyone entering Romania from any region where the virus had been reported would be quarantined for 14 days, but local media reported that arriving passengers were only being asked to fill out a form.

Fears stretched as far away as Mauritius, which blocked an Alitalia airplane that had landed overnight from Rome. Alitalia said 40 passengers from Lombardy and Veneto were told they would only be allowed off if they went into quarantine locally, even though none complained of symptoms. The Italian foreign ministry said it was working to provide “maximum assistance to Italians on board” and Alitalia said it was working to bring those refused entry back to Italy immediately.

Many Italians are travelling this week for the midwinter school holiday, and Mauritius is a popular destination. But the island nation has been more assertive than its African counterparts in trying to keep the virus out, announcing quarantines for passengers arriving from the Chinese city of Wuhan or displaying symptoms. To date, Africa only has one confirmed case, in Egypt.

While Italian authorities canceled soccer matches, Masses and closed schools, museums, theaters and even Venice’s famed Carnival, they also sought to calm fears by noting the virus’ low mortality rate and the far higher number of Italians who have died from the seasonal flu this year. The five people who died with coronavirus were all elderly and at least two of them had other serious ailments.

Speaking on state-run RAI news, virologist Ilaria Capua of the University of Florida noted that Italy’s high number of cases were due to the fact that Italy was “actively seeking them out.” More than 3,000 people have been tested for the virus, most of whom had direct contact with those infected.

“It is likely that the more we look, the more we will find,” Capua said. But she stressed that the majority of cases likely wouldn’t even require a doctor’s visit and that Italy’s numbers are “very analogous to what we will see in many other European countries.”

Civil protection officials insisted that Italy was still a safe place to visit. Veneto regional president Luca Zaia lamented that he never imagined he would ever have to cancel Venice’s Carnival – another economic blow to the famed lagoon city that already saw tourism plummet after last year’s floods.

Italy, however, wasn’t taking chances and effectively sealed off a dozen northern towns where more than 150 of the cases were found. On Monday, police wearing face masks manned checkpoints along the road into Codogno, southeast of Milan, where the first patient to test positive for the virus was hospitalized last week.

Residents wearing face masks and gloves lined up at Codogno’s supermarket to stock up on food, only to find out the market was still closed on orders of the mayor. Later, groups of four at a time were allowed into the bakery in nearby Casalpusterlengo, and one at a time into the pharmacy.

Italian farm lobby Coldiretti reported a 5%-10% increase in fresh fruit and produce purchases this weekend across the country, as Italians stocked up fearing possible future quarantines even in regions that hadn’t registered any cases. Hand disinfectant and face masks were in short supply.

Fears also spread to Lombardy’s capital, Milan, Italy’s financial hub, where the final two runway shows of Milan Fashion Week scheduled for Monday were canceled. While most fashion houses held shows as usual Sunday, Giorgio Armani and Laura Biagiotti presented their collections behind closed doors, streaming live for the fashion public.

On Monday, civil protection chief Angelo Borrelli said the total was at 219 infected, of whom 167 were in Lombardy. Five people had died, and one had recovered.

Until last week, Italy only had registered three people who tested positive for the virus, including a Chinese couple visiting from Wuhan. They have been recovering at Rome’s infectious disease hospital.

The EU’s health security committee was meeting Monday to take stock of developments, notably in Italy. A joint team from the World Health Organization and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control were also set to visit Italy.

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Zampano and Winfield reported from Rome. Lorne Cook in Brussels, Angela Charlton in Paris, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Llazar Semini in Tirana, Albania, Vadim Ghirda in Bucharest, Romania, and Cara Anna in Johannesburg contributed.

A cashier wears a sanitary mask as she talks to a client in a supermarket in Casalpusterlengo, Northern Italy, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. Italy scrambled to check the spread of Europe’s first major outbreak of the new viral disease amid rapidly rising numbers of infections and a third death. Road blocks were set up in at least some of 10 towns in Lombardy at the epicenter of the outbreak, including in Casalpusterlengo, to keep people from leaving or arriving. (AP Photo/Paolo Santalucia)
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