By Elvira Pollina and Crispian Balmer
MILAN (Reuters) – Italy’s northern region of Lombardy said on Friday it wanted to extend emergency measures adopted last week to try to contain Europe’s worst outbreak of coronavirus as the number of confirmed cases soared.
Warning that the health system could be thrown into chaos if the contagion spread rapidly, Lombardy asked the government to keep curbs in place for an additional week, including shutting schools and banning public gatherings.
“This is not …a situation that can be easily resolved,” Massimo Galli, head of the infectious-diseases department at Milan’s Sacco hospital, told a news conference alongside regional leaders.
Underscoring the difficulties facing the country, officials said its number of confirmed cases had jumped to 888 from 650 on Thursday, of whom 21 had died.
The outbreak emerged last week 60 km (40 miles) from Italy’s financial capital Milan. Authorities identified a cluster of towns in Lombardy and a smaller zone in the neighboring region of Veneto as the epicenter of the flare-up and placed 50,000 inhabitants under quarantine.
They also implemented a general clampdown across much of the affluent north, ordering the closure of universities, museums, theaters and cinemas, leading to an exodus of tourists and business travelers and triggering fears of a likely recession.
As the economic pain has deepened, the government has come under pressure to restore a sense of normality but Lombardy warned against complacency.
“If this outbreak spreads, hospitals will face a serious crisis, not only for the coronavirus admissions but for all patients,” the region said in a statement.
Highlighting the concerns, Lombardy revealed there had been a sudden crisis in the town of Lodi, near the epicenter of the contagion, with 51 people needing immediate hospitalization.
The Civil Protection agency said 345 of all the coronavirus sufferers were in hospital, of whom 64 were in intensive care. Some 412 had few or no symptoms and were at home, while 46 people were declared fully recovered. All those who died were elderly patients, many with serious underlying health problems.
Lombardy said that on average each patient was infecting two other people. It added that in the worst-affected area around 4% of the population had come down with the illness.
The economic impact of the health crisis is being felt in places barely touched by the virus.
Italy’s tourism federation, Assoturismo, said up to 90% of hotel and travel agency bookings had been canceled in Rome and up to 80% in Sicily for March, as school trips and conferences were called off and foreigners decided to stay away.
“Italian tourism never experienced a crisis on this scale in recent history. This is the darkest moment, not even 9/11 hit our business so hard,” said Assoturismo chief, Vittorio Messina.
The government approved an initial batch of measures on Friday aimed at providing liquidity to small and medium-sized companies in the emergency ‘red zone’, freezing utility charges, insurance premiums and loan repayments including mortgages.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Aliosi and Giuseppe Fonte; Editing by Gavin Jones and John Stonestreet)