MILAN (Reuters) - An outbreak of coronavirus in northern Italy worsened on Friday, with officials announcing 14 confirmed cases in the wealthy region of Lombardy and two in the adjacent region of Veneto.
Just hours after revealing that six people had come down with the virus in the first known cases of local transmission in Italy, Lombardy officials said a further eight had tested positive, including five health workers.
The government said that in the affected area, covering several small towns southeast of Italy's financial capital Milan, it was banning all public events and closing schools, offices and sports venues.
"We had prepared a plan in recent days, because it was clear what has happened could somehow happen," Health Minister Roberto Speranza told reporters as doctors tested hundreds of people who might have come into contact with the coronavirus sufferers.
Speaking on the margins of a European Union meeting in Brussels, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said he would meet the chiefs of Italy's civil protection agency later on Friday, and that the situation was under control.
"We were ready for this ... the people have no need to be worried, we will adopt increasingly severe and precautionary measures," he said.
None of the new patients are believed to have visited China, the epicentre of the virus, but the first infected patient, a 38-year-old man from the town of Lodi, fell ill after meeting a friend who had recently been there.
That man has since tested negative for the disease, but doctors were investigating whether he carried the virus and subsequently recovered without showing any symptoms, said Lombardy regional councillor Giulio Gallera.
The pregnant wife of the initial patient and one of his friends were infected, along with three others admitted to hospital overnight suffering from pneumonia-like symptoms.
Two people, aged 77 and 78, also tested positive in preliminary analyses in Veneto, but doctors had not yet confirmed the infection.
Luca Zaio, the regional governor of Veneto, said it was unclear how the two individuals in his region might have caught the disease. "There was certainly no contact with the people infected in Lodi," he said.
After the first confirmed cases late in January, Italy suspended all direct flights to and from China, provoking the ire of the Beijing government.
"Diplomatic and economic issues are fundamental but health comes first," Health Minister Speranza said on Friday as he announced the government's latest measures.
All those who have entered Italy after visiting areas in China affected by the coronavirus will have to stay home under surveillance, the health ministry said in a statement.
Authorities continued their efforts to track down everyone the new patients had come into contact with.
"Most of the contacts of those who tested positive for coronavirus have been identified and subjected to the necessary tests and measures," the Lombardy region said in a statement early on Friday before the eight new cases were announced.
Prior to Friday, Italy had reported just three cases of the virus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Two Chinese tourists from Wuhan tested positive in Rome in late January, while an Italian who returned home on a special flight repatriating some 56 nationals from the same city was hospitalized a week later.
China has had more than 75,400 cases of the coronavirus and 2,236 people have died, most of them in Hubei province and its capital Wuhan.
(Additional reporting by Francesco Guarascio in Brussels, Elvira Pollina in Milan and Riccardo Bastianello in Veneto Angelo Amante reported from Rome; Editing by Gavin Jones, Christina Fincher, Bernadette Baum and Cynthia Osterman)