Italy says Omicron wave has peaked as new cases fall

Italy appears to have reached a peak in the number of Omicron infections, with cases of the highly contagious variant now on the decline, the country's Covid emergency commissioner said on Monday.

People wearing face masks walk next to the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
People wearing face masks walk next to the Rialto Bridge in Venice. Photo: Laurent EMMANUEL / AFP

“There is good news: it seems that we have reached the plateau of the curve for what concerns Omicron and it is going downhill,” Covid-19 emergency commissioner Francesco Paolo Figliuolo told journalists in Milan.

“In the past two days, even in Lombardy the number of admissions to the hospital is lower than the number of discharged. This bodes well,” Figliuolo said.

A large proportion of Covid-19 deaths have been in the wealthy region of Lombardy, around Milan, which recorded the first cases in Europe.

The commissioner’s statement came almost a week after Italian health minister claimed on Tuesday that Italy had reached the peak of the fourth wave.

READ ALSO: At a glance: What Covid-19 rules are now in place in Italy?

As Italy recorded 228,179 coronavirus cases on Tuesday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza stated: “We are at a peak and the hope is that in the coming days there will be further decline in the curve”.

Italy reported 138,860 new Covid-19 cases on Sunday, and 227 deaths – though the daily figures released on Sundays and Mondays are lower than average, due to the fact fewer tests are carried out or recorded in the 24 hours prior.

The seven-day average numbers of new infections and hospitalisations have however decreased at the national level.

The situation continues to vary by region however, with some regions set to see cases peak weeks before others.

Five of Italy’s 21 regions and autonomous provinces are classified as a higher-risk ‘orange’ zone from Monday under the current system of health measures.

Italy has adopted tough rules to curb the virus’s spread, including mandatory mask-wearing in all indoor and outdoor public places, and obligatory vaccination for the over-50s.

The slowdown comes as the World Health Organization said the the planet can end the Covid-19 emergency this year by ensuring equitable access to vaccines and keeping restrictions in place.

The Omicron variant, which is very contagious but generally leads to less severe infection among vaccinated people, is now the dominant variant in Europe.

Omicron could bring the pandemic to an end in Europe, the WHO Europe director said on Monday.

“It’s plausible that the region is moving towards a kind of pandemic endgame,” Hans Kluge told AFP in an interview, adding that Omicron could infect 60 percent of Europeans by March.

In a statement on Monday he added: “We are entering a new phase, driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant sweeping Europe, from west to east.”

Once the current surge of Omicron sweeping across Europe subsides, “there will be for quite some weeks and months a global immunity, either thanks to the vaccine or because people have immunity due to the infection, and also lowering seasonality”.

“We anticipate that there will be a period of quiet before Covid-19 may come back towards the end of the year, but not necessarily the pandemic coming back,” Kluge said.

With Omicron spreading so widely, other variants could still emerge, he warned.

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EXPLAINED: Why is Italy’s coronavirus infection rate rising again?

After Italian health ministry data showed Covid cases are on the increase for the first time in weeks, why is this happening and is it likely to continue? Here's what Italy's health experts say.

EXPLAINED: Why is Italy’s coronavirus infection rate rising again?

The number of Covid cases detected in Italy has been falling for the last five weeks. But it began to rise again in early March, according to the latest data published by the Higher Health Institute (ISS) and the health ministry on Friday.

“During this week there was an inversion in the trend of the Covid-19 curve in Italy,” confirmed ISS President Silvio Brusaferro as he presented the data at a press conference. 

“In recent weeks it has been decreasing. Last week the decrease slowed down, and this week we are witnessing a curve that begins to rise again”.

The increase came despite the fact Italy has strict health measures in place including the requirement to show proof of vaccination or recovery under ‘super green pass’ rules, and a mask mandate for all indoor and some outdoor public places.

In the last two weeks, the incidence of Covid infections in around half of all Italian provinces has stalled or risen, health ministry data showed.

The number of known current positive cases is once more nearing a million, and the weekly incidence rate has risen to 510 cases per 100,000 people, up from 433 the previous week.

On Monday, official data showed new cases were up by 30 percent week-on-week, while the test positivity rate is 14.1 percent.. 

Giovanni Rezza, the health ministry’s director of prevention, confirmed that hospitalisation rates are still decreasing for now.

“Regarding the occupancy rate in the hospital wards and intensive care, we are at 12.9 percent and 5.5 respectively,” he said at Friday’s press conference.

People wearing face masks at the Capitoline Hill in Rome. The Italian government eased the requirement to wear masks outdoors after a decline in the number of Covid-19 cases in February, but the rule still applies in some settings. Photo by Vincenzo PINTO / AFP

Though Italy’s health experts are urging people to remain cautious, they stress that it is too early to know whether the situation is likely to worsen further.

“There is no reason for us to be alarmed ahead of time”, immunologist Sergio Abrignani, a member of the government’s scientific advisory board, told newspaper Corriere della Sera on Monday. 

The increase in cases is due to “a series of factors”, he said, “and it is not guaranteed that it will persist.”

Nino Cartabellotta, president of Italy’s evidence-based medicine foundation Gimbe, said it would take “7-10 days” to see whether this is truly a reversed trend or “just a rebound”.

“We now have a fairly high circulation of the virus. We still have a million positives and 40,000 cases per day,” he cautioned in an interview with Radio Cusano Campus. “There is no doubt about this. But the element of concern is that the descent has stopped and there are also hints of an ascent”.

Experts attributed the rise to several factors, including colder weather, and decreased caution as people look ahead to the planned end of certain health measures in Italy.

Decreasing vaccination rates are also thought to be a major factor, as well as new “sub-variants” of coronavirus, Brusaferro noted at the press conference.

“Omicron sub-variants, such as 2, the most transmissible, are growing,” he said.

Cartabellotta also said the rise may be due to “the sub-variant Omicron 2 , of which we know nothing” as well as the recent spate of very cold weather meaning “we are more indoors where the virus spreads more”. 

He said the rise was also connected to public behaviour, with Italy now looking ahead to a promised relaxation of the health measures – even though the government is yet to confirm details of the plan.

Italy eased some measures in early February, including the requirement to wear a mask in all outdoor public places.

“In Italy the increase in Covid cases is linked to a series of factors, including a certain relaxation on the part of the population, coinciding with the end of the state of emergency – which has been sold, even though it is a deadline of a purely regulatory nature, as a sort of watershed”.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi confirmed in late February that the country’s state of emergency – the condition that allows the government to pass emergency laws by decree – will end on March 31st, after more than two years.

This doesn’t automatically mean the end of health measures in Italy. However, Draghi also confirmed that ‘super green pass’ rules would be lifted “gradually” from April.

The government is expected to give further details of plans for easing the rules on Thursday, March 17th.