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Health experts urge prudence as Italy readies to end coronavirus lockdown

As the Italian government prepares to announce in coming days the gradual phasing out of the lockdown put in place last month, public health experts continued on Friday to call for caution.

Health experts urge prudence as Italy readies to end coronavirus lockdown
Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO / AFP

“The virus is still circulating. Everywhere in the country we have to be very careful,” Silvio Brusaferro, president of the Instituto Superiore di Sanita (ISS), Italy's top health agency, told reporters on Friday.

In making the tough decisions on which businesses would be allowed to reopen, and when, the Italian government should be guided by extreme prudence, experts said.

In La Stampa daily on Tuesday, virologist Fabrizio Pregliasco said authorities needed to “make choices that involve the lowest possible risk.”

“We have to be aware that every tap that opens risks increasing contact and the likelihood of new infections,” Pregliasco said.

Italy is expected to slowly reopen beginning on May 4, with more businesses gradually allowed to open in successive weeks, as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tries to mitigate the crushing damage to the economy the coronavirus crisis has already inflicted.

The government said on Friday it estimated that GDP would fall by 8 percent this year.

Conte has tried to balance demands to revive economic activity with public safety needs, but a recent improvement in coronavirus trends has encouraged efforts to loosen the lockdown.

The number of patients with the virus continues to drop, as does the death toll. As of Friday, nearly 26,000 people had died of the coronavirus in Italy.

“The epidemiological situation has clearly improved,” the ISS' Brusaferro said. “The number of symptomatic patients is falling more and more.”

His colleague Giovanni Rezza, head of ISS' infectious disease department, also stressed that the pressure was now “less obvious” on intensive care units, including in Lombardy, the most affected Italian region.

That, he said, “offers a certain margin in case of a further increase in cases”. The experts also noted that the virus' reproduction rate was now between 0.2-0.7 in all regions.

As of 10 March, the day after the entire country was put under quarantine, it ranged between 2 and 3, meaning each patient was infecting an average of two to three people.

“The threshold to restart? For an epidemiologist, it should be zero,” said Rezza.

“But it is obvious that a country cannot tolerate more than two or three months of confinement.” 

No parties, please

Calculating upcoming risks, Brusaferro said it could take as little as two weeks, maybe less, for the virus reproduction rate to shoot back up above 1 if Italians did not respect social distancing and other safety measures.

Brusaferro has estimated that about 90 percent of Italians had never come into contact with the virus, meaning the hope for so-called “herd immunity” which comes after over 60 or 70 percent of a population is exposed to the virus, was far from being reached.

The quickness with which infections could flare up again is not lost on some politicians, even those like the president of Veneto, Luca Zaia, who has pushed for weeks for an early resumption of activity.

“If you don't want to catch the coronavirus, you have to use the mask,” Zaia said Wednesday. “Otherwise it's like riding a motorcycle without a helmet.”

The success of Italy's recovery from the virus and the reopening of its economy largely depends on the individual responsibility of citizens, experts said.

“In short, we will be able to go to the park,” Brusaferro said. “But not to have a big party in the park.”

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COVID-19

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

As the infection rate rises sharply across the country, Italian virologists are calling for concerts and festivals to be rescheduled.

Covid-19: Are Italian live events at risk of being postponed?

Italy has seen a large increase in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days, so much so that a number of virologists across the country are now urging the government to postpone major live events in a bid to curb infections. 

According to a new report by Italy’s independent health watchdog, the Gimbe Foundation, 595,349 new cases were recorded in the week from June 29th to July 5th; a worrying 55 percent increase on the previous week. 

In the same time span, the country also registered a 32.8 percent rise in the number of hospitalised patients, which went from 6,035 to 8,003.  

The latest Covid wave, which is being driven by the highly contagious Omicron 5 variant, is a “real cause for concern”, especially in terms of a “potential patient overload”, said Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe Foundation. 

As Italian cities prepare to host a packed calendar of concerts and festivals this summer, health experts are questioning whether such events should actually take place given the high risk of transmission associated with mass gatherings.

READ ALSO: What tourists in Italy need to know if they get Covid-19

“Rescheduling these types of events would be the best thing to do right now,” said Massimo Ciccozzi, Director of Epidemiology at Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome. 

The summer wave is expected to peak in mid-July but, Ciccozzi warns, the upcoming live events might “delay [the peak] until the end of July or even beyond” and extend the infection curve.

Antonello Maruotti, Professor of Statistics at LUMSA University of Rome, recently shared Ciccozzi’s concerns, saying that live events as big as Maneskin’s scheduled Rome concert are “definitely not a good idea”. 

The Italian rock band are slated to perform at the Circus Maximus on Saturday, July 9th but the expected turnout – over 70,000 fans are set to attend the event – has raised objections from an array of Italian doctors, with some warning that the concert might cause as many as 20,000 new cases.

If it were to materialise, the prospected scenario would significantly aggravate Lazio’s present medical predicament as there are currently over 186,000 Covid cases in the region (nearly 800 patients are receiving treatment in local hospitals). 

Italian rock band Maneskin performing in Turin

Italian rock band Maneskin are expected to perform at the Circus Maximus in Rome on Saturday, July 9th. Photo by Marco BERTORELLO / AFP

But, despite pleas to postpone the event, it is likely that Maneskin’s concert will take place as scheduled.

Alessandro Onorato, Rome’s Tourism Councillor, said that rescheduling is “out of question” and that “all recommendations from the local medical authorities will be adopted” with the help of the event’s organisers and staff on the ground.

At the time of writing, there is also no indication that the Italian government will consider postponing other major live events scheduled to take place in the coming weeks, though the situation is evolving rapidly and a U-turn on previous dispositions can’t be ruled out.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What are the Covid-19 rules in Italy now?

On this note, it is worth mentioning that Italy has now scrapped all of its former Covid measures except the requirement to wear FFP2 face masks on public transport (though not on planes) and in healthcare settings.

The use of face coverings is, however, still recommended in all crowded areas, including outdoors – exactly the point that leading Italian doctors are stressing in the hope that live events will not lead to large-scale infection.

Antonio Magi, President of Rome’s OMCEO (College of Doctors, Surgeons and Dentists), said: “Our advice is to wear FFP2 masks […] in high-risk situations.”

“I hope that young people will heed our recommendations and think about the health risks that their parents or grandparents might be exposed to after the event [they attend].”

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