CODOGNO, ITALY (AFP) – Two deaths from the new coronavirus sparked fears throughout northern Italy on Saturday, as towns shuttered shops and schools to try to halt a rise in new infections.
Italy became the first country in Europe to report the death of one of its own nationals from the virus, triggering a lockdown in about a dozen towns.
A 77-year-old woman died on Saturday near the small town of Codogno in Lombardy in the north, a day after a 78-year-old retired bricklayer succumbed to the virus in the neighbouring region of Veneto.
In Lombardy, health officials confirmed 39 cases of the virus that first emerged in China, with another 12 in Veneto.
“The contagiousness of this virus is very strong and pretty virulent,” Lombardy’s Health Chief Giulio Gallera told a press conference.
But he cautioned: “Today it’s not a pandemic.”
He said health authorities had identified “patient number one”, a 38-year-old man in intensive care in Codogno.
All cases in the region are connected to him, Gallera said, whether medical workers, relatives or friends, he said. The man’s wife has also tested positive for the virus.
Italian media have reported that the man dined in January with a friend who had returned from China, but the friend has since tested negative for the virus.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has called an emergency meeting with the health authorities, expressed his sympathies on Facebook for the deaths and said the government was considering “extraordinary measures” to fight the onslaught of new cases.
More than 50,000 people from about a dozen towns in the two northern regions were asked to stay at home by the local authorities.
Lombardy is a prosperous region best known for its business capital of Milan. Ten communities in the area have now been shuttered as the authorities try to stamp out further infection.
In Codogno, streets were mostly deserted and few shops were open after the mayor put the town of 15,000 people on temporary lockdown on Friday.