Delta variant in Italy will be ‘prevalent within 10 days’: health official

As the summer season gets underway and crowds gather to watch Italy play in major sporting events, the country needs to brace itself for an upturn in new coronavirus infections, the Italian deputy health minister said on Monday.

Delta variant in Italy will be 'prevalent within 10 days': health official
Sporting events draw crowds - and risk new surges in the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

The euphoria of Italy fans seeing their national football team claim the Euro 2020 title could soon be dampened as the effect of social gatherings makes itself felt, Pierpaolo Sileri told Radio 24 in an interview.

“It’s great to see people in the squares, but we will inevitably see the number of infections rise. The Delta variant will spread and become dominant sooner than expected,” said Sileri.

“I fear by the end of the month [there will be] three to four times the contagions that we have today,” he warned.

READ ALSO: Italian health minister urges caution as Delta variant fuels increase in new cases

Sileri predicts that the Delta variant of coronavirus will overtake the currently dominant Alpha variant within just ten days, he told newspaper La Stampa

He echoed recent warnings from the WHO, saying the trend would be partially accelerated by people gathering in large numbers to watch football and tennis matches.

With a potential resurgence in cases, some lockdown measures could be reintroduced.

“There is no need to reinstate the obligation to wear a mask outdoors, but controls should be strengthened in case of gatherings,” said Sileri.

“We need constant vigilance, we need to strengthen controls in nightlife areas, because where you don’t keep your distance you have to wear a mask, otherwise sanctions must be applied.”

EXPLAINED: When do you still need to wear a mask in Italy?

He went on to say that Italy’s health situation could evolve in the same way that the UK’s did, claiming that the number of infections “will continue to grow” through the summer.

Italy is currently experiencing a rise in coronavirus cases due to the Delta variant after 15 weeks of falling figures, according to the latest weekly monitoring report by the Higher Health Institute (ISS), which reports that the Delta and Kappa strains together account for nearly 28 percent of new infections in Italy compared to 5 percent in May.

The health authorities say that new cases are mainly among those who are unvaccinated or have only had their first dose.

Over 44 percent of the population over 12 years old has been vaccinated, the latest government figures show, but “there will be a gradual increase in the number of people who have been vaccinated with a double dose, and by September we will be around 70 to 75 percent immunised,” according to Sileri.

READ ALSO: How many people in Italy still aren’t vaccinated?

Yet vaccinations alone aren’t enough, according to Andrea Crisanti, director of the department of microbiology at the University of Padua.

The Delta variant is “one step away from becoming vaccine-resistant, so the less it is transmitted the better,” he told Rai news. “I think we should combine the vaccination campaign and at the same time strengthen our tracking capacity,” he added.

Not only are vaccinations and tracing those who test positive for Covid-19 hoped to help stem the rise in new infections, but “some backward steps” also can’t be ruled out, Sileri said.

He hinted at a possible reinstatement of the country’s colour system in some regions. The various tiers of zones classify the level of health risk and set corresponding restrictions.

Supporters of the Italian national football team celebrate their teams’ first goal in the UEFA EURO 2020 final football match between England and Italy, at the Piazza del Popolo fanzone, in Rome on July 11, 2021. (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP)

Italy’s 20 regions are all currently placed in the lowest-risk ‘white zones‘, where most restrictions have now been dropped. But Sileri said that they could be reintroduced and that authorities may even bring back the highest-risk red zones, which could be activated at a local level.

“However, we will have to refer to the number of hospitalisations rather than to the number of infections,” he added.

READ ALSO: Everything that changes in Italy in July 2021

“At the moment the number of infections is small and there is no need for some regions to return to the [low-medium risk] yellow zone. It is clear, however, that if we were to have an explosion of cases, admissions and hospital pressure, we would have to take a step back. Today there is no such risk,” he said.

But Maria van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Covid-19 technical lead at the WHO, sounded a more urgent alarm.

She described watching the final between Italy and England as “devastating” in a post on Twitter.

Italy’s health minister Roberto Speranza also voiced his worries about the consequences of people going on holiday and gathering to watch sporting events.

He said: “The European football championship and the Wimbledon tournament are over, and the Azzurri are the main players. It is a great joy after terrible months. Even in these moments of national pride we never forget that our ‘game’ to defeat Covid is not yet won,” reported news agency Ansa.

“Let’s support our champions responsibly, remembering the rules of spacing and using masks correctly,” he added.

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Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

The new Italian government has announced the end of some remaining Covid health measures. Here's a look at what will - and won't - change.

Is Italy’s government planning to scrap all Covid measures?

Few Covid-related restrictions remain in Italy today, six months after the nationwide ‘state of emergency’ ended.

The previous government had kept only a handful of precautionary measures in place – which the new government, led by Giorgia Meloni, must now decide whether or not to keep.

The cabinet is holding a meeting on Monday and will issue a decree this week detailing any changes to the health measures.

Many expect the government to scrap all measures entirely by the end of the year, after Meloni and her party criticised the way Mario Draghi’s administration handled the pandemic throughout its tenure. 

Meloni clearly stated in her first address to parliament last Tuesday that “we will not replicate the model of the previous government” when it comes to managing Covid.

READ ALSO: Five key points from Meloni’s first speech as new Italian PM

While she acknowledged that Italy could be hit by another Covid wave, or another pandemic, she did not say how her government would deal with it.

Meanwhile, new health minister Orazio Schillaci issued a statement on Friday confirming the end of several existing measures, saying he “considers it appropriate to initiate a progressive return to normality in activities and behaviour”.

Workplace ban for unvaccinated medical staff

Schillaci confirmed that the ministry will allow doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to return to work after being suspended because they refuse to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

Those who refuse vaccination will be “reintegrated” into the workforce before the rule expires at the end of this year, as part of what the minister called a “gradual return to normality”.

They will be allowed to return “in light of the worrying shortage of medical and health personnel” and “considering the trend of Covid infections”, the statement said.

Fines issued to healthcare staff aged over 50 who refused vaccination would also be cancelled, it added.

There were some 1,579 doctors and dentists refusing vaccination at the end of October, representing 0.3 percent of all those registered with Italy’s National Federation of the Orders of Physicians, Surgeons and Dentists (Fnomceo) 

Daily Covid data reports

Schillaci also confirmed in the statement that the health ministry will no longer release daily updates on Covid-19 contagion rates, hospital cases and deaths, saying this would be replaced by a weekly update.

It said it would however make the data available at any time to relevant authorities.

Mask requirement in hospitals to stay?

The requirement to wear face masks in hospitals, care homes and other healthcare facilities expires on Monday, October 31st.

At a meeting on the same day the government is expected to decide whether to extend the measure.

READ ALSO: What can we expect from Italy’s new government?

While the government had looked at scrapping the requirement, it reportedly changed stance at the last minute on Monday after facing heavy criticism from health experts.

Media reports published while the meeting was in progress on Monday said government sources had indicated the measure would in fact be extended.

Confirmation is expected to come later on Monday.

Italy’s face mask rules in care homes and healthcare facilities are up for renewal. Photo by Thierry ZOCCOLAN / AFP

‘Green pass’ health certificate

There is no indication that the new government plans to bring back any requirements to show a ‘green pass’: the digital certificate proving vaccination against or recent recovery from Covid, or a negative test result.

The pass is currently only required for entry to healthcare facilities and care homes, and this is expected to remain the case.

‘Dismantling the measures’

Some of the confirmed changes were strongly criticised by Italy’s most prominent healthcare experts.

Head of the Gimbe association for evidence-based medicine, Nino Cartabellotta, said the focus on cancelling fines for unvaccinated healthcare workers was “irrelevant from a health point of view .. but unscientific and highly diseducative”.

He told news agency Ansa it was “absolutely legitimate” for a new government to discontinue the previous administration’s measures, but that this “must also be used to improve everything that the previous government was unable to do”.

The government should prioritise “more analytical collection of data on hospitalised patients, investments in ventilation systems for enclosed rooms … accelerating coverage with vaccine boosters,” he said.

However, the plan at the moment appeared to be “a mere dismantling of the measures in place,” he said, “in the illusory attempt to consign the pandemic to oblivion, ignoring the recommendations of the international public health authorities”.