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SCHOOLS

Italy to reopen primary schools amid ‘very early signs of slowdown’ in infections

Italy will reopen schools for younger students and ease the coronavirus lockdown on Rome and its surrounding region, the government announced on Friday.

Italy to reopen primary schools amid 'very early signs of slowdown' in infections
Deserted streets in Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Primary schools will reopen after the Easter holidays, while the rules in the Lazio region will be relaxed from Tuesday.

Meanwhile the regions of Tuscany and Valle D’Aosta will go into a form of lockdown from Monday, after hitting the threshold for new cases that automatically makes them Covid-19 “red zones”.

EXPLAINED:

Current coronavirus curbs, which vary from region to region, expire on April 6th, but all of Italy will be made a restricted red zone under maximum restrictions during the April 3rd-5th weekend.

Lazio, which has been red for the past two weeks, will move into orange from Tuesday, March 30th, before passing back into red over next weekend. 

It is expected to be the only region where rules are relaxed before Easter, based on the latest weekly health data released by Italy’s Higher Health Institute (ISS) on Friday. 

Two more regions that are currently orange, Tuscany and Valle D’Aosta, will become red from Monday, March 29th, while all others are expected to remain as they are now.

That leaves the updated regional classification as follows:

  • Red zones: Campania, Emilia Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Marche, Piedmont, Puglia, autonomous province of Trento, Tuscany, Valle D’Aosta, Veneto.
  • Orange zones: Abruzzo, Basilicata, autonomous province of Bolzano, Calabria, Lazio, Liguria, Molise, Sicily, Sardinia, Umbria.

There are no yellow or white zones under the latest classification.

“I can confirm the decision … to open [schools] until the sixth grade,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi said during a news conference. Classes for the lower grades will be allowed to reopen country-wide, even in higher-risk regions still classified as red.

Schools were closed in most of Italy on March 15th, after the government introduced a partial shutdown to contain a third wave of infections fuelled by virus variants. The closures triggered a string of protests by students, parents and some teachers, with demonstrations in more than 60 cities on Friday.

Over the past 13 months, Italian students have had to put up with longer suspensions of face-to-face schooling than most of their peers in Europe.

Students in Turin demonstrate against the closure of high schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP

Italy was the first country in Europe to face the full force of the coronavirus pandemic, and has so far reported more than 106,000 Covid-19-related deaths.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said on Friday there were now “very early signs of a slowdown” in infection rates, allowing for some cautious re-openings.

The R rate, which measures how fast the virus is spreading, has fallen to 1.08 nationally, from 1.16 last week, said Speranza, who spoke alongside Draghi. Furthermore, the weekly number of infections per 100,000 residents has fallen under the critical level of 250, the minister added.

Speranza said he would relax coronavirus restrictions in the Lazio region, which includes Rome, moving it from red to orange category, effective from Tuesday. This will allow the resumption of face-to-face classes for students up to grade eight, and a relaxation of stay-at-home rules.

In orange zones people are free to move within their own municipalities, though bars, restaurants and museums remain shut.

In red zones all movement is limited, with only ‘essential’ shops open and socializing banned.

The Italian government has not yet announced what will replace the current rules after April 6th, but is expected to continue revising them based on the latest health data.

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COVID-19 RULES

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

The health ministry is reviewing its quarantine requirements as the country's Covid-19 health situation improved again this week, according to Italian media reports.

Will Italy drop its Covid isolation rule as the infection rate falls?

Italy has taken a more cautious approach to Covid in recent months than many of its European neighbours, keeping strict isolation rules in place for anyone who tests positive for the virus.

But this could be set to change in the coming days, according to media reports, as one of Italy’s deputy health ministers said the government is about to cut the isolation period for asymptomatic cases.

“Certainly in the next few days there will be a reduction in isolation for those who are positive but have no symptoms,” Deputy Health Minister Andrea Costa said in a TV interview on the political talk show Agorà on Tuesday.

“We have to manage to live with the virus,” he said.

Italy’s La Stampa newspaper reported that the compulsory isolation period could be reduced to 48 hours for those who test positive but remain asymptomatic – provided they subsequently test negative after the day two mark.

Under Italy’s current rules, vaccinated people who test positive must stay in isolation for at least seven days, and unvaccinated people for ten days – regardless of whether or not they have any symptoms.

READ ALSO: How tourists and visitors can get a coronavirus test in Italy

At the end of the isolation period, the patient has to take another test to exit quarantine. Those who test negative are free to leave; those who remain positive must stay in isolation until they get a negative test result, up to a maximum of 21 days in total (at which point it doesn’t matter what the test result says).

Health ministry sources indicated the new rules would cut the maximum quarantine period to 15 or even 10 days for people who continue to test positive after the initial isolation period is up, La Stampa said.

The government is believed to be reviewing the rules as the latest official data showed Covid infection and hospitalisation rates were slowing again this week, as the current wave of contagions appeared to have peaked in mid-July.

However, the national Rt number (which shows the rate of transmission) remained above the epidemic threshold, and the number of fatalities continued to rise.

The proposed changes still aren’t lenient enough for some parties. Regional authorities have been pushing for an end to quarantine altogether, even for people who are actively positive – an idea Costa appears sympathetic to.

“The next step I think is to consider the idea of even eliminating the quarantine, perhaps by wearing a mask and therefore being able to go to work,” he told reporters.

“We must review the criteria for isolation, to avoid blocking the country again”.

At least one health expert, however, was unenthusiastic about the proposal.

Dr Nino Cartabellotta, head of Italy’s evidence-based medicine group Gimbe, tweeted on Tuesday: “There are currently no epidemiological or public health reasons to abolish the isolation of Covid-19 positives”

Massimo Andreoni, professor of Infectious Diseases at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Tor Vergata University of Rome, was more ambivalent about the prospect.

The isolation requirement for asymptomatic cases should be “revised somewhat in the light of the epidemiological data”, he told reporters, but urged “a minimum of precaution, because the less the virus circulates and the fewer severe cases there are, the fewer new variants arise”.

When the question was last raised at the end of June, Health Minister Roberto Speranza was firmly against the idea of lifting quarantine requirements for people who were Covid positive.

“At the moment such a thing is not in question,” he told newspaper La Repubblica at the time. “Anyone who is infected must stay at home.”

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