How will Italy’s Covid-19 strategy change under the new government?

As Italy's newly sworn-in government sets to work this week, it has already begun changing the coronavirus rules. Are major changes to the country's strategy now on the way?

How will Italy's Covid-19 strategy change under the new government?
Some tourism has been allowed to restart in Italy under the current system of regional rules - but is this about to change? Photo: AFP

Italy’s ski slopes had been set to reopen on Monday, February 15th, for the first time this winter season under coronavirus restrictions.

But on Sunday evening, the new Italian government unexpectedly blocked the planned reopening, causing outrage among local authorities, tour operators and the public .

READ ALSO: Anger in Italy as Monday's reopening of ski slopes cancelled

The sudden about-turn was down to rising concerns about the spread of new coronavirus variants, according to the health ministry.

“Concern about the spread of this and other variants of Sars-Cov-2 has led to similar measures being taken in France and Germany,” the ministry said in a statement.

While anger at the move was largely directed at the health minister, Italian media on Monday reported that the decision came from Palazzo Chigi – the new prime minister’s office.

Many are now asking whether this is a sign of major changes to Italy’s coronavirus strategy to come under Draghi’s new government.

Under the previous government, restrictions in Italy were loosened in recent weeks. Health experts said Italy was “bucking the trend”, while many other European countries tightened rules amid concern about variants.

But the new government is under increasing pressure to change course and implement similar measures to France and Germany.

Italy's new prime minister Mario Draghi was sworn in on Saturday. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Pool/AFP

The government's technical and scientific committee (CTS), which advises on – but does not decide – the rules, on Monday called for reinforced measures to “contain and slow” the spread of variants.
While it's not immediately clear what measures it recommends, several leading health experts have recently called for an urgent lockdown.

Walter Ricciardi, professor at Rome's Catholic University and a member of the CTS, said it was “urgent” for the new government “to immediately change the strategy to combat Sars-Cov-2”.

READ ALSO: Where are the new Covid variants spreading in Italy?

“It is clear that the strategy of coexistence with the virus, adopted so far, is ineffective and condemns us to instability, with a heavy number of deaths every day,” he told news agency Ansa.

“An immediate total lockdown is needed throughout Italy, but of limited duration. I will talk about it with (Health) Minister Speranza this week,” he said.

Virologist Andrea Crisanti, another government health advisor, also called for “a tough lockdown immediately, to prevent the English variant from becoming prevalent and to prevent it from having devastating effects like in England, Portugal and Israel,” stressing that the current zone system was “not enough”.

Others, including the director of Rome's Spallanzani Infectous Diseases Institute, Francesco Vaia, and the Puglia region's health councillor, Pierluigi Lopalco, say the future strategy should be more focused on “selective” closures.

Italy’s current regional tiered system of restrictions has been in place since November 6th – except for during the Christmas holidays, when a series of nationwide ‘mini-lockdowns’ were enforced.

Restaurants, shops and other businesses are subject to closures under Italy's tiered system of coronavirus measures. Photo: AFP

The current rules mean regions can be moved in and out of red, orange and yellow zones, each with different rules, based on the level of contagion risk locally. Classifications are revised weekly based on regional health data.

In recent weeks however, many towns and provinces have been declaring their own local lockdowns or red zones in response to spikes in infection rates. 

READ ALSO: Where to find the latest Covid-19 information for your region of Italy

There has been no comment so from ministers in the new government, which must yet face a vote on Wednesday to gain parliamentary approval. This is widely seen as a formality, however, and the government is not expected to face any problems passing the vote.

Draghi is expected to outline a strategy when he speaks in the Senate this week.  He has already indicated that controlling the spread of variants is a priority for the new government, along with speeding up the mass vaccination campaign.

For now, he has warned members of his cabinet only to make announcements “when there is something to say”.

Italy’s current set of rules is expected to stay in place until March 5th, when a revised emergency decree is due – the first to come under Draghi’s government.

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Q&A: What you need to know about Italy’s West Nile virus outbreak

As Italy records a surge in cases of West Nile fever, we look at what the disease is and where in the country it's spreading.

Q&A: What you need to know about Italy's West Nile virus outbreak

Mosquitos are unfortunately one downside of summer in Italy. But as well as being a nuisance, they may also pose a health risk in the country – one of the few in Europe to record cases of West Nile virus (WNV)

READ ALSO: Cases of West Nile fever surge in northern Italy

Last week Italy recorded 50 more cases of the mosquito-borne virus, bringing the total number of infections to 144 according to the latest report from Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS).

This marked a 53-percent increase in cases against the previous week, while ten people have died so far.

As the number of infections continues to rise, here are the answers to the most pressing questions about the disease and the outbreak in Italy.

What is it?

The West Nile Virus (WNV) is a single-stranded RNA virus that can cause West Nile fever in humans.

It’s a member of the Flavivirus family together with other endemic viruses such as the Zika and Dengue viruses.

The virus was first identified in 1937 in Uganda’s West Nile district but has since spread to many other parts of the world, to the point that it is now considered indigenous to Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Australia. 

Carried by birds, West Nile virus is transmitted to humans by mosquitoes.

The West Nile virus is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes of the Culex species, which infect humans and other mammals through their bite, according to Italy’s health ministry.

There is no evidence that human-to-human transmission is possible.

Where are cases being reported in Italy?

Infections have been largely concentrated in the north of the country, especially in the Veneto region, where six people have now died of the disease. Other deaths were recorded in Lombardy, Piedmont and Emilia-Romagna.

The city of Padua, which is located in Veneto’s mainland, around 35 kilometres away from the Adriatic coast, is currently regarded as the hotspot of the virus. 

It isn’t yet clear why Veneto has been the worst-hit region so far, but experts fear that its marshy lowlands might be the perfect breeding ground for disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

A mosquito of the Culex species viewed under a microscope.

Mosquitoes of the Culex species, a specimen of which is pictured above, are responsible for transmitting the West Nile Virus to humans and other mammals. Photo by Jon CHERRY Getty Images / AFP

How severe is the outbreak in Italy?

West Nile virus is not new to Italy. However, this summer has brought the highest number of cases recorded yet.

National infection levels remain relatively low but the country has by far the largest number of cases in Europe.

According to the most recent report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), dated August 3rd, 94 out of 120 recorded cases were in Italy.

Greece had 23 reported cases. Romania and Slovakia had two and one respectively. 

Italy is the only European country that has reported fatalities.

What are the symptoms?

According to the Italian Higher Health Institute (ISS), around 80 percent of infected people show no symptoms whatsoever.

In symptomatic cases, however, symptoms generally resemble those of a common flu and include fever, headaches, nausea and diarrhoea. 

The infection is usually only dangerous for people with weakened immune systems such as the elderly, and the most severe symptoms occur in fewer than one percent of infected people.

In healthy people, the virus is unlikely to cause more than a headache or sore throat, and symptoms generally last only a few days.

According to the data currently available, around one in 150 infected people can show symptoms as serious as partial vision loss, convulsions and paralysis. 

In very rare cases (around 0.1 percent, or one in 1000) the disease can cause brain infections (encephalitis or meningitis) which may eventually be fatal.

Brazilian biologists handle mosquito larvae.

There is currently no vaccine against West Nile disease, though several are being tested. Photo by Apu GOMES / AFP

Is there a cure?

There is no vaccine against West Nile fever. “Currently vaccines are being studied, but for the moment prevention consists mainly in reducing exposure to mosquito bites,” the ISS states.

There is also no specific treatment for the disease caused by the virus.

Patients showing the more serious symptoms are usually admitted to hospital and treated with IV fluids and assisted ventilation.

What should you do to protect yourself?

Seeing as there is currently no vaccine against the virus, the best way to protect oneself is by reducing exposure to mosquitoes as much as possible.

Italian health authorities have listed a number of official recommendations to help residents avoid mosquito bites. These include: 

  • Use repellent
  • Wear long-sleeved shirts and long trousers when being outdoors and especially during ​​mosquitoes’ peak activity times, i.e. sunrise and sunset
  • Use mosquito nets on your windows or sleep in rooms with air-conditioning and keep the windows closed
  • Make sure there are no pools of stagnant water around your house

See more information about West Nile virus in Italy on the health ministry’s website.