Italy now accounts for more than half of all the cases recorded outside China.
Italy on Sunday recorded 368 new deaths from the novel coronavirus, its highest one-day increase to date, taking the total to 1,809.
The number of infections has reached a total of 24,747, Italy's civil protection service said.
This figure includes the 1,809 deceased as well as the 2,335 patients who have fully recovered.
Italian health experts have predicted that the numbers will continue to rise in the coming days, with nationwide quarantine measures implemented on Tuesday expected to show results in around two weeks.
Almost 125,000 tests for the viirus have now been carried out in Italy, official data showed.
The northern Lombardy region around Milan remained the European epicentre of the pandemic, officially reporting 1,218 deaths, or 67 percent of the Italian total.
But Sunday also saw the number of deaths in the southeastern Puglia region around the city of Bari double from eight to 16.
Almost every region of Italy has now recorded at least one death connected to the coronavirus outbreak, other than two southern regions: Molise and Basilicata.
The Lazio region that includes the Italian capital Rome has officially recorded 16 deaths in all – up from 13 on Saturday – and 436 infections.
Central Rome on Sunday. Photo: AFP
Lombardy's regional governor Attilio Fontana said the situation in areas around Italy's financial capital of Milan was “getting worse”.
“We are close to the point where we will no longer be able to resuscitate people because we will be out of intensive care unit beds,” Fontana told Italy's Sky TG24 channel.
“We need those machines (doctors) use to ventilate lungs, artificial respirators that unfortunately we cannot find,” Fontana said.
“As soon as those respirators arrive from abroad, we will be ready to go on the attack.”
The Lombardy region has recorded 1,218 of the deaths officially attributed to COVID-19 over the past three weeks – more than the rest of Europe combined.
The region of 10 million – slightly smaller but more economically productive than neighbouring Switzerland to the north – also has 13,272 reported infections and 767 people in intensive care.
'No more ambulances'
Milan mayor Beppe Sala said he had managed to secure shipments of surgical masks from China to help cover a growing shortage of equipment for medical staff.
“Milan has always had excellent relations with the main Chinese cities and I made a few phone calls over the past few days in search of masks,” the Milan mayor said.
“The first shipment arrived (on Friday) and we will now distribute them to doctors, to our staff.”
European Commission also announced the imminent delivery of one million masks from Germany.
Yet the situation remained critical – despite Lombardy enjoying a world-class healthcare system that has been consistently praised by the World Health Organization for its level of equipment and organisation.
Health workers treat coronavirus patients in a temporary emergency structure set up outside a hospital in the town of Brescia, in Lombardy. Photo: AFP
Lombardy welfare councillor Giulio told reporters Saturday that “there are no more ambulances” in areas around Milan.
The governor of Venice's Veneto region, to the east of Lombardy, also called on “everyone to remain in isolation” to avoid putting hospitals under further strain.
“If you do not follow the rules, the health system will crash and I will have to impose a curfew,” Veneto governor Luca Zaia warned.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte insisted on Sunday that his government was paying “maximum attention” to the situation in the north.
The government is set to soon unveil a new crisis plan, which reportedly includes family relief measures such as parental leave pay and help for the self-employed.
The government said it was also in discussion with banks about a suspension of some family mortgage payments.
Find all The Local's coverage of the coronavirus outbreak in Italy here.