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 as authorities sought to contain cases of COVID-19 virus that have made Italy the focal point of the outbreak in Europe and fears of its cross-border spread.

Italians travelling abroad were already feeling the effects of a crackdown, with a bus from Milan barricaded by police in the French city of Lyon for health checks and an arriving Alitalia plane blocked on the tarmac in the African island nation of Mauritius.

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.

But officials still haven’t pinpointed the origin of the contagion, which by Monday had spread to more than 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.”

In France, the government urged anyone who had visited Lombardy or Veneto – the two most affected regions in Italy – to wear face masks if they go outside, limit non-essential 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, but wouldn’t give details, or say whether anyone on the bus is suspected of having the virus.

Italy’s neighbors Slovenia and Croatia, which are popular destinations for Italian tourists and whose own citizens often travel to Italy, were holding crisis meetings Monday. Croatia announced it would monitor any travelers coming from Italy, including Croatian children returning from school trips.

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.

In Albania, about 5,000 passengers arriving by plane, ferry and land were being monitored, with special focus on border crossing points targeting travelers from Italy.

Fears stretched as far away as Mauritius, which blocked an Alitalia airplane that had landed. The Italian foreign ministry said it was working to provide “maximum assistance to Italians on board.” Many Italians are travelling this week for the mid-winter school holiday, and Mauritius is a popular destination.

But the African island nation has been more assertive than its African counterparts in trying to keep the virus out, announcing quarantines for passengers arriving from Wuhan or displaying symptoms. To date, Africa only has one confirmed case, in Egypt.

While Italian authorities cancelled soccer matches, Masses and closed schools, theater performances 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 four people who died with coronavirus were all elderly and 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.”

Italy, however, wasn’t taking chances and effectively sealed off a dozen northern Italian 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.

The fears 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, with 167 in Lombardy. Five people had died, and one was cured.

Italy’s vice minister for health, Pier Paolo Silveri, said the country was appealing to Italians’ “civic sense” to abide by the containment measures for the two weeks that the northern quarantine has been imposed.

The mounting cases surprised Premier Giuseppe Conte, given Italy had imposed more stringent measures than any other European country after the first cases were reported in China. Italy on Jan. 31 barred flights to and from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau, began screening all arriving passengers at its airports and declared a state of emergency to free up funding for containment measures.

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 Centre for Disease Prevention and Control were also set to visit Italy.

“It is an incredible time. Less than two months ago, the coronavirus was completely unknown to us. The past few weeks has demonstrated just how quickly a new virus cans spread around the world and cause widespread fear and disruption,” WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference in Stockholm via a video link.

He said the WHO was especially concerned about the cases in Italy, South Korea and Iran, where the death toll hit 50 in the city of Qom on Monday.

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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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