Italy warned schools ‘must reopen at any cost’ despite new coronavirus outbreaks

One of Italy's leading government health experts insisted on Monday that school reopenings must go ahead as planned in September - though more businesses may have to close "if people do not follow the rules".

Italy warned schools 'must reopen at any cost' despite new coronavirus outbreaks
Photo: AFP

“We will reopen the schools at any cost,” said Franco Locatelli, President of Italy's Higher Health Council and a member of the government's technical scientific committee (CTS), which advises ministers on implementing and relaxing measures aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

READ ALSO: Italy shuts discos and orders mask-wearing at night as Covid cases rise

“The infections are increasing, but we can contain the epidemic,” Locatelli insisted in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera on Monday.

Will more businesses be shut down?

While Italy is “fortunately still in a privileged position for now”, he said that could change as “the number of cases is increasing so much so that in a week it has gone from 200-300 per day to over 600 on August 15th.”

“Either we follow the rules or we risk having to close other businesses, after the discos,” he said.

Italy's health minister had on Sunday night ordered all nightclubs to close for three weeks amid concerns that social distancing and other precautionary measures were not being followed.

Locatelli said the nightclub closures “will have an economic impact, unfortunately, but health comes first, and the gatherings we have seen in discos must be avoided otherwise we risk finding ourselves in a more alarming situation soon”.

He said further business closures couldn't be ruled out, and urged people to continue to take basic precautions – wearing masks in public places, frequest hand.washing, and maintaining a distance from others.

But Locatelli stressed that keeping schools closed beyond September 14th is “out of the question”.
“We need to reopeìen schools with the lowest possible number of cases,” he said. “The better we are doing on September 14th, the higher the probability of resuming lessons without the risk of having to close classes or buildings.”

Locatelli insisted that Italian authorities had not been too hasty in relaxing the rules after the strict lockdown, however.

“Undoubtedly the beginning of the summer season involved the need to consider some reopenings, in order not to damage the tourism economy and to allow Italians to enjoy their holidays in mountain and seaside resorts – avoiding going abroad.”
Photo: AFP
Where are Italy's new cases coming from?

Locatelli said many recent outbreaks were connected to international travel – often by Italians holidaying abroad, or by foreign residents travelling back to their homes in Italy.

Cases are “now widespread throughout the country with hundreds of outbreaks,” he said.

“The phenomenon is partly linked to vacationers.”

“Depending on the region, 25-40 percent of cases were imported by fellow citizens who had returned from travel abroad, or by foreigners residing in Italy.”

The italian government last week introduced mandatory testing for all travellers returning to Italy from Spain, Greece, Croatia, and Malta, in the hope of stemming new outbreaks.

READ ALSO: Where are Italy's new coronavirus clusters?


Meanwhile Locatelli said “cases imported by migrants, understood as being desperate people who flee, are minimal.” 

“No more than 3-5 percent are positive, and some become infected in reception centers where it is more difficult to maintain adequate health measures.”

Many Italian media reports have suggested that young holidaymakers in particular may be to blame for many of the new cases, and the Italian Health Ministry says the average age of infected persons in recent weeks has dropped to 40, the lowest yet, compared to about 61 during the first stage of the pandemic.

READ ALSO: 'Joyful contagion machines'? Italy's clubbers spark controversy

But Locatelli was reluctant to blame the recent surge in cases on younger people.

He said “their risk of becoming infected is similar to that for anyone else”.

“There is a reduction in the age of infected people due to the fact that we have learned to protect the elderly,” he expained. “Young people can become infected and are not safe from serious symptoms. Many twenty-year-olds have been hospitalized.”

“Nobody is immune.”

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Semen ‘a vehicle’ for monkeypox infection, say Italian health experts

Researchers in Italy who were first to identify the presence of monkeypox in semen are broadening their testing, saying early results suggest sperm can transmit infection.

Semen 'a vehicle' for monkeypox infection, say Italian health experts

A team at Rome’s Spallanzani Hospital, which specialises in infectious diseases, revealed in a study published on June 2nd that the virus DNA was detected in semen of three out of four men diagnosed with monkeypox.

They have since expanded their work, according to director Francesco Vaia, who said researchers have found the presence of monkeypox in the sperm of 14 infected men out of 16 studied.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How is Italy dealing with rising monkeypox cases?

“This finding tells us that the presence of the virus in sperm is not a rare or random occurrence,” Vaia told AFP in an interview.

He added: “The infection can be transmitted during sexual intercourse by direct contact with skin lesions, but our study shows that semen can also be a vehicle for infection.”

Researchers at Spallanzani identified Italy’s first cases of monkeypox, found in two men who had recently returned from the Canary Islands.

The latest results reported by Vaia have not yet been published or subject to peer review.

Since early May, a surge of monkeypox cases has been detected outside of the West and Central African countries where the disease has long been endemic. Most of the new cases have been in Western Europe.

More than 3,400 confirmed cases and one death have now been reported to the World Health Organisation from more than 50 countries this year.

The vast majority of cases so far have been observed in men who have sex with men, of young age, chiefly in urban areas, in “clustered social and sexual networks”, according to the WHO.

It is investigating cases of semen testing positive for monkeypox, but has maintained the virus is primarily spread through close contact.

Meg Doherty, director of the WHO’s global HIV, hepatitis and sexually-transmitted infection programmes, said last week: “We are not calling this a sexually-transmitted infection.”

Could antivirals curb the spread of monkeypox?

Spallanzani researchers are now trying to ascertain how long the virus is present in sperm after the onset of symptoms.

In one patient, virus DNA was detected three weeks after symptoms first appeared, even after lesions had disappeared – a phenomenon Vaia said had been seen in the past in viral infections such as Zika.

That could indicate that the risk of transmission of monkeypox could be lowered by the use of condoms in the weeks after recovery, he said.

The Spallanzani team is also looking at vaginal secretions to study the presence of the virus.

A significant finding from the first study was that when the virus was cultured in the lab, it was “present in semen as a live, infectious virus efficient in reproducing itself”, Vaia told AFP.

Vaia cautioned that there remained many unanswered questions on monkeypox, including whether antiviral therapies could shorten the time in which people with the virus could infect others.

Another is whether the smallpox vaccine could protect people from the monkeypox virus.

“To study this we will analyse people who were vaccinated 40 years ago before human smallpox was declared to have disappeared,” Vaia said.