Roundup: Italy's virus infection rate creeps higher as gov't issues stricter health measures


ROME, Oct. 5 (Xinhua) -- The Italian government has continued walking back eased coronavirus lockdown measures, as the virus' infection rate continued to inch higher, sending ripples across a country struggling to return to normal.

In recent days, members of parliament have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, along with a former minister of health and an undersecretary for foreign affairs. The parliamentary committee working on the government's 2021 budget has been halted.

Meanwhile, a football matchup between Juventus and Napoli -- two of the most high-profile teams in Serie A, the country's top league -- was canceled due to coronavirus fears. Five southern regions have introduced mandatory mask laws, even for people in open spaces, while a decree is in the works for a national mask law that will carry fines of up to 3,000 euros (3,500 U.S. dollars). And the government announced that the national state of emergency first put into place on Jan. 31 would be extended "at least" until its one-year anniversary.

On Monday, Italy recorded 2,257 new cases, according to the Ministry of Health data, a figure less than on Sunday but the fifth consecutive day of at least 2,000 infections. The number of patients in intensive-care units continued to rise, reaching 323 on Monday, 20 more than the previous day and up from 246 ten days ago.

Still, the government vows not to reinstate the national coronavirus lockdown, which was put in place in early March and was eased in stages starting in May.

Minister of Health Roberto Speranza said Sunday the government was "doing everything possible" to avoid another nationwide lockdown, echoing similar statements from Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte over the last two weeks. But Speranza, quoted in La Stampa, noted some isolated lockdowns in areas where cases have spiked, and he asked residents across the country to avoid "unnecessary" gatherings.

Francesco Vaia, the head of the Spallanzani Institute in Rome, said that studies are showing that most cases are popping up among family members of infected people or among those who use public transportation. Speaking to the news site Roma Today, Vaia called for stricter enforcement of social distancing rule, including lower limits for the use of public transportation.

Several media reports worried that an increase in infections in the country's poorer southern regions could have dire consequences, given health care infrastructure that is less comprehensive than in the northern part of the country, where the pandemic in Italy hit hardest earlier in the year.

Water Ricciardi, a key advisor to Speranza, told the Italian news agency Adnkronos that Italy's experience with the virus from March and April, when infection rates and death tolls spiked, was an advantage. But he warned that an expected increase in the regular flu and cooler weather that will force more indoor activities represented "new challenges." Ricciardi called on residents to avoid risks and to be vigilant.

According to the newspaper La Repubblica, police stopped more than 53,000 people to check for mask use in the two days since the mask rules were issued Saturday, and only 186 were sanctioned, a rate of just 0.35 percent.

There are other reasons for optimism: infection rates in Italy are still far below those in other major European countries, where they have regularly topped 10,000 per day. Italy has "done much better than many other countries," according to Italian virologist Illaria Capua, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, who spoke with the news site Il Meteo.

Health analysts also say Italian hospitals are better prepared than they were at the start of the pandemic. That is evidenced by recoveries at the rate of more than 600 a day, though those recovering from the virus no longer keep pace with new infections. On Monday, there were 767 new recoveries, bringing that total to 232,681.

Recent death rates also remain low: On Monday, the country recorded 16 new deaths, compared to 18 and 27, respectively, the previous two days. Even as infection rates and the number of intensive-care unit patients climb, the death rate has still not surpassed 30 since June 18, and far below peaks of nearly 1,000 a day in late March and early April, when the majority of Italy's total of 36,002 COVID-19 deaths accumulated.

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