A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the new virus from China and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.
The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in the Lombardy and Veneto regions to close schools, businesses and restaurants and to cancel sporting events and Masses. The mayor of Milan, Italy’s business capital and the regional capital of Lombardy, shuttered public offices.
A 78-year-old man infected with the virus died in Veneto. A post-mortem test performed on a 77-year-old woman in Lombardy came back positive, though it wasn’t clear if illness from the virus caused her death.
“In zones considered hotspots, neither entry or exit will be authorized without special permission,” Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said during a press conference.
79 people in Italy have been confirmed to be carrying the virus, most of them in the Lombardy region.
Late Saturday, officials suspended three Serie A soccer matches scheduled for Sunday in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto: Inter Milan vs. Sampdoria, Atalanta vs. Sassuolo and Hellas Verona vs. Cagliari.
Three other matches in Genoa, Turin and Rome on Sunday were going ahead as scheduled.
Hundreds of residents and workers who came into contact with people who tested positive for the virus in Italy were put into isolation pending results of their tests. Civil protection crews set up a tent camp outside a closed hospital in Veneto to screen medical staff for the virus.
In the town of Codogno, where the first patient identified in the northern cluster was in critical condition, closed supermarkets, restaurants and shops made the main street practically a ghost town. The few people out wore face masks, which were coveted items after selling out at pharmacies
Late Saturday, civil protection officials said 79 people had contracted the virus, including the two who died and one who was cured. Of the remaining 76, 54 were in Lombardy, 17 in Veneto, two in Emilia Romagna, two in Lazio — a Chinese couple from Wuhan — and one in Piemonte.
Lombardy government authorities said the region’s cases were traceable to a 38-year-old Italian who hadn’t traveled to China, but it remained unclear how he was infected. Ten towns in Lombardy received orders to suspend nonessential activities and services.
Veneto regional president Luca Zaia said Saturday that the contagion showed that the virus is transmitted like any flu and that trying to pinpoint a single source for the cases or to establish a link to China were no longer effective containment measures.
“You can get it from anyone,” he told reporters. “We can expect to have cases of patients who had no contact” with suspected carriers. While the virus isn’t particularly lethal, it can be for the elderly or people with existing conditions, he said.
The man who died in Veneto, for example, did not meet the main risk factors for the virus when he was diagnosed with pneumonia two weeks ago: he hadn’t traveled to China or come into contact with anyone who did. Therefore, the ill man wasn’t originally tested for the virus.
He was only tested after he didn’t respond to conventional pneumonia treatment, and by then it was too late, according to Francesca Russo, the head of healthcare for the Veneto region.
Along with eight other infected people, the man who died have formed a cluster in his hometown of Vo’Euganeo, population 3,300. Russo expressed relief that to date, none of the hospital personnel who treated him has tested positive.
Lombardy health and welfare ministry chief Giulio Gallera said that region’s cases also comprised a traceable cluster.
The first person to fall ill had met with a man who returned from China on January 21 and remains without symptoms. Other people acquired their infections from the patient who hadn’t been in China, either through contact with him or the hospital in Codogno where he first received treatment February 18.