Italy seeks to calm fears in Europe as cases, deaths rise

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ROME (AP) – Italy sought international support for its virus containment efforts Wednesday even as its caseload reached 374, people linked to Italy got sick elsewhere in Europe and the world, and the U.N.’s health agency urged a scaled-up response.

Premier Giuseppe Conte’s government appealed to European neighbors for cooperation, not isolation and discrimination. Italy has been struggling to contain the rapidly spreading outbreak that has given the country more coronavirus cases outside Asia than anywhere else.

“Viruses don’t know borders and they don’t stop at them,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza insisted at the start of a crisis meeting with World Health Organization and European Union representatives in Rome.

Twelve people infected with the virus have died in Italy since Friday, all of them elderly, having other health conditions 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 increasing cases and inability to locate the origin of the outbreak clustered in northern Italy.

Germany and France also reported two cases apiece in people with no known ties to Italy, travel to China or contact with an infected person, raising concern about additional clusters with no known origin possibly forming in Europe.

Latin America reported its first case, in a Brazilian man who recently visited Italy’s Lombardy region, the epicenter of Italy’s outbreak. Algeria reported Tuesday night that an Italian man who traveled to the north African country this month as its first case.

In Europe, Greece registered its first confirmed virus 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 has reported nine new 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 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,” according authorities in his home region north of Paris.

A German man with the virus was in critical condition and his wife also tested positive, but German officials to date have not been able to trace the origin of their contagion. Officials expressed fear of infections spreading since the wife works in a kindergarten and the man had been to Carnival parties.

The man had come into contact with dozens of people, including doctors and nurses at a Cologne hospital where he had gone for an unrelated health checkup, German officials said. Schools and kindergartens in the area where he became ill remained shut.

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.

Rome authorities reported some good news on an otherwise bleak day: Both Chinese tourists from Wuhan who have been treated at the Spallanzani infectious disease hospital have now tested negative after more than two weeks of anti-viral treatment.

But alarm, caution and panic spread in Italy and beyond.

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.”

Syracuse University was sending home 342 students on its study abroad program in Florence, and Ireland’s Six Nations rugby match against Italy in Dublin on March 7 was postponed.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said the country is preparing for the possibility of an increase in cases.

“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.”

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Frank Jordans in Berlin, Jovana Gec in Belgrade, Serbia, Angela Charlton in Paris, Elena Becatoros in Athens, Greece, contributed to this report.

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Full AP coverage of the virus outbreak can be found here: https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak

A girl wearing a face masks sits checking her phone in downtown Milan’s Gae Aulenti square Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. The viral outbreak that began in China and has infected more than 80,000 people globally, so far caused 374 cases and 12 deaths in Italy, according to the last figures released by civil protection. (Claudio Furlan/LaPresse via AP)
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