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HEALTH

Sardinia and Sicily reopen as Italy’s Covid contagion rate continues to fall

As a result of the improving contagion data, Italy's health ministry has classed all but one region as a lower-risk ‘yellow’ zone from Monday.

Sardinia and Sicily reopen as Italy's Covid contagion rate continues to fall
People waiting to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in Sicily on Friday. Photo: GIANLUCA CHININEA/AFP

Sicily and Sardinia join the rest of Italy in lifting many of the coronavirus restrictions, as the two island regions will be moved from the moderate-risk ‘orange’ to the yellow zone under the latest update to the nation’s tiered system of restrictions, regional governors confirmed on Friday.

MAP: Where in Italy are coronavirus cases falling fastest?

Only the northern Valle d’Aosta region will remain in the orange zone for at least one more week.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza will reportedly sign the latest ordinance on Friday evening, bringing the changes into effect from Monday May 17th.

All other regions and autonomous provinces are already under yellow zone restrictions, meaning lighter restrictions are in place in almost all of Italy.

In yellow zones, museums and cinemas are able to reopen and restaurants can welcome diners for outdoor table service. Restrictions on travel to and from the region are dropped.

Many parts of Italy, including Rome’s Lazio region, have been under relaxed ‘yellow’ zone restrictions since April 26th. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Italy’s coronavirus Rt rate, which shows the speed of transmission, has fallen slightly to 0.86, down from 0.89 last week, according to the latest weekly coronavirus monitoring report from Italy’s health ministry and the Higher Health Institute (ISS).

The average incidence rate nationwide has fallen to 96 known positive cases for every 100,00 inhabitants, compared to 123 cases in last week’s report.

However the figure varies significantly around the country.

Three regions have now dropped below the critical threshold of 50 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, which means tracking and tracing will be able to resume, said the head of Italy’s Higher Health Institute Silvio Brusaferro at a press conference on Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile the proportion of intensive care beds occupied by Covid-19 patients is now below the threshold of 30% in all but three regions.

ANALYSIS: Will Italy really be able to lift most of its Covid-19 restrictions in June?

As Italy’s coronavirus numbers continue to gradually improve, it’s hoped that some regions could soon be declared low-risk, low-restriction ‘white’ zones in the coming weeks.

No region yet has the numbers to be designated a ‘white’ zone.

There are strict criteria for being declared white zone, in which most restrictions are relaxed, including the 10pm curfew, with only face masks and social distancing still in place.

Sardinia is the only region to have enjoyed a spell as a white zone, in February – though a few weeks later the island turned ‘red’ again after seeing a sharp increase in new infections.

The Italian government has insisted that its plan for reopening the country to tourism is gradual enough to prevent a new spike in infections. 

However, if cases do rise sharply after restrictions are lifted, regions or towns could once again be placed under red or orange zone restrictions at short notice.

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“We need to be cautious and gradual in managing the pandemic. Particular attention is paid to the variants that continue to emerge,” said Brusaferro.

“Reducing the number of new cases is important; we must maintain mitigation measures and continue the vaccination campaign,” he said.

Italy’s vaccination campaign has been speeding up in recent weeks after months of setbacks and delays.

The seven-day average daily number of vaccinations given in the country is now around 460,000, up from almost 444,000 the week before, the latest figures show.

Italy’s emergency commissioner Francesco Figliuolo this week instructed regions to offer vaccinations to the over-40s on Wednesday – just a week after saying they could open appointments to the over-50s.

However, the percentage of over-60s not yet vaccinated is still so high that the campaign is lagging overall – and made worse by unknown numbers of people refusing vaccinations, particularly the AstraZeneca shot.

The health ministry said just over eight million people in Italy – 13.6% of the population – are fully vaccinated as of Friday, meaning they have had two doses of a vaccine or a shot of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose jab.

Almost 26 million shots have been administered in total so far, the latest official figures show..

For more information on Covid-19 restrictions currently in place in Italy, please see the Italian Health Ministry’s website (in English).

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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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