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HEALTH

IN NUMBERS: Is it too soon for Italy to relax its coronavirus restrictions?

As Italy's government prepares to begin easing the strict coronavirus measures in place across the country, here's what the latest health data tells us.

IN NUMBERS: Is it too soon for Italy to relax its coronavirus restrictions?
Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Italy last week unveiled plans to begin relaxing restrictions from the end of April. The news came as a relief to many – not least the business owners who’ve been protesting about the economic impact of the country’s prolonged shutdown.

But many in the country have questioned whether it’s really safe to do so yet amid a still-high infection rate and a sluggish vaccine rollout.

READ ALSO: Schools, restaurants, gyms, travel: Here’s Italy’s new timetable for reopening

The government insisted it was taking a “calculated risk” as it announced the reopening. However, some health experts warned on Monday that reopening too much too soon would risk triggering a new wave that could mean closures during the summer tourist season. 

“This is a very delicate phase. If the curve starts rising again, we’re risking the summer season,” Dr Nino Cartabellotta, president of the Gimbe foundation for evidence-based medicine, told Italian Radio Cusano Campus on Monday.

He stressed that the government’s plan relied heavily on the public following the rules, particularly on masks and social distancing.

And, with many older and more vulnerable people still not vaccinated in Italy, doctors have warned of the risks if infections were to rise again following a relaxation of the rules.

Medical workers’ unions last week wrote to the government to urge caution, saying “any premature relaxation of restrictions could put the lives of Covid-19 patients at great risk”.  

“A slowdown of the restrictions will only be possible if daily infections remain below 5,000 cases, while maintaining a large capacity for testing, and resuming contact tracing to control the spread of the epidemic,” their recommendation read. 

The number of new cases nationwide is currently at around 15,000 daily.

“Hospitalizations would need to be far below the critical thresholds, and vaccinations complete at least for frail subjects and those over 60, the categories at the highest risk of hospitalization and mortality,” the unions warned.

While the numbers are moving in the right direction, Italy has some way to go before those requirements are met.

“It is true that new cases are progressively reducing, but we have half a million positive cases, and that’s an underestimated number,” Cartabellotta said.

“Hospital admissions are decreasing, they have decreased by almost 20% in 11 days, but in the critical area and in intensive care the descent is slower, and we still have regions that are beyond the critical threshold,” he said.

Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

“We need to be aware that reopening is happening on a tightrope.”

The health situation in Italy varies considerably from region to region – which is why the restrictions currently vary across the country under a system of ‘red zone’ and ’orange zone’ rules.

MAP: Which zone is your region in under Italy’s coronavirus restrictions?

Most of the planned easing of restrictions from April 26th would only apply in areas that qualify as lower-risk ‘yellow’ zones – a classification which does not apply to any part of the country at the moment.

We won’t know whether any regions actually qualify for ‘yellow’ zone status until Friday, April 23rd, when any changes will be announced based on the previous week’s regional health data.

Meanwhile, Italy’s vaccination programme appears to be speeding up, with a new daily record of almost 350,000 shots administered on Friday.

The latest tallies are welcome news after the country has faced a string of setbacks and missed targets in the vaccination rollout.

But Italy is still lagging behind the European Union average, with the number of people receiving one dose amounting to 16.9% of the population.

READ ALSO: How fast is Italy vaccinating its population compared to other European countries?

More than 10 million people in Italy have received at least one shot of a vaccine, according to official government figures.

Of those, 4.4 million have had both doses required for immunisation. 

However, Italy is a long way from having all over-60s vaccinated.

Many of those in older age groups remain at risk, with only 3.4% of people aged 70-79 fully vaccinated so far.

IN CHARTS: Who is Italy vaccinating fastest?

The government is now aiming to get 80% of the population fully vaccinated “by autumn”, which the prime minister said on Friday was an “achievable” target.

Despite recent improvements, concerns remain that the relatively slow pace of Italy’s vaccination rollout will make it more difficult for the country to safely restart travel this summer.

With many of its own citizens and residents currently unable to access the vaccine, it’s not yet known if Italy will allow vaccinated tourists to enter the country for summer holidays.

How much, and how soon, Italy is able to reopen businesses and restarts travel will depend on the health data in the coming weeks and months.

READ ALSO: 

The government has not yet confirmed any plans to relax the current travel restrictions. Nor has it said whether the country will definitely be taking part in the EU’s Digital Green Certificates scheme, due to begin in June.

The proposed EU travel certificates will have information on whether a traveller has been vaccinated or not, if they have received a negative test result, or if they have recovered from Covid-19, allowing them to travel throughout the bloc more easily.

At the moment, the Italian government is discussing implementing a domestic travel “pass” that would allow holders to freely enter and leave Italy’s higher-risk orange and red zones, however no details of the plan have yet been announced.

Member comments

  1. There seems a strange logic to reopening the country here, its so scatter gun…. Less than a month ago Sardinia was a triumph…they went white a couple weeks later they were in red….My part of Tuscany was declared red weeks ago, yet surrounding areas in Tuscany stayed orange….and after weeks our numbers now still barely clear us from red zone!!!

    We have to stop the talking and get vaccines in arms, of any type if they are approved. Not just for the sake of our populations health and mental wellbeing, but to save our tourist season…Many business lost easter business for a second year and they are now immanently looking at loosing a second summer…what are we doing here…Stop this procrastination…Look no further than the UK…hurts me to say it but they got there act together on this….they stumped up the money bought vaccines by the bucket load… and got it into people…over the last weeks they’ve are recording less deaths daily in the whole county than we have in just Tuscany daily…

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MONKEYPOX

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.

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