Italy looks ahead three months after first COVID-19 outbreak

The coronavirus infection curve continued downward overall in Italy on Thursday, three months after the pandemic officially broke out in its northern Lombardy region on Feb. 21.

Nationwide, the number of active infections dropped by 1,792 to 60,960 cases, according to the Civil Protection Department. Recoveries increase by 2,278 compared to Wednesday, bringing the nationwide total to 134,560.

A further 156 COVID-19 patients had died in the past 24 hours in Italy, bringing the country’s toll to 32,486, out of total infection cases of 228,006.

Of those who tested positive for the new coronavirus, 640 are in intensive care, 36 fewer compared to Wednesday, and 9,269 are hospitalized with symptoms, down by 355 patients from Wednesday.

The rest 51,051 people, or about 84 percent of those who tested positive, are quarantined at home with no symptoms or only mild symptoms.

The Lombardy region whose capital is Milan still led in terms of cases, with 26,715 active infections. At the other end of the spectrum was the northern Valle d’Aosta region in the Alps, with 43 active infections.

“A CALCULATED RISK”

In a report to the Lower House of Parliament on Thursday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte outlined the government’s strategy for Phase Two, or the post-lockdown phase.

“We realize the challenge that lies ahead is even more difficult and just as dangerous as the one we faced at the beginning of the emergency,” he said.

“Exactly three months after the first case was confirmed (in Lombardy), we can state in good conscience that we made the right choice, the only one that could prevent the epidemic from spreading throughout the national territory,” Conte said in reference to the March 10-May 3 national lockdown decreed by his government.

Although “the epidemiological picture is not completely resolved,” the government believes it is time to return to normality, the prime minister said.

“We are now in a condition to face Phase Two with confidence… We all know a little more about the virus, and how to protect ourselves,” Conte said.

The prime minister also warned young people that “now is not the time for parties” and that “in this phase more than ever, social distancing and the use of masks are essential” in keeping the virus at bay.

“We are aware that starting this new phase could make the contagion curve rise again in some parts of the country,” Conte added.

“It is a calculated risk, and we will keep the (infection) curve under observation,” the prime minister continued. “We must accept this risk. We cannot stop while we wait for a vaccine. Otherwise our productive and social fabric will be irremediably compromised.”

Conte assured lawmakers that the government has “set up an accurate nationwide monitoring system based on data from the regions” and that “this will allow us to intervene should new outbreaks occur.”

Conte also noted that beginning on May 25, “serological tests will be available for free to 150,000 volunteers for the sole purpose of scientific research.”

Scientists want to find out how many healthy people have developed antibodies to the new coronavirus.

Carrying out the tests “will require an effort, based on the work of volunteers” and there will be a “national coordinating structure” to oversee them, the prime minister said.

ANTIBODY SCENARIO IN MILAN

In an article posted on Wednesday, Milan’s Policlinico Hospital cited a recent study saying that an estimated 1 in 20 inhabitants of Milan had COVID-19 antibodies weeks before the outbreak officially began on Feb. 21.

“What the experts suspected has been demonstrated with a study of blood donors at the Policlinico Hospital … where over 40,000 people from Milan and other parts of Lombardy give blood every year,” the article said.

Researchers selected a random sample of 800 healthy people who donated their blood at the Policlinico between Feb. 24 and April 8.

“According to the results, at the (official) beginning of the epidemic, 4.6 percent of the donors already had antibodies to the virus, and that percentage had risen to 7.1 percent by the beginning of April,” researchers wrote.

“A seroprevalence of 4.6 percent means 1 person out of 20 had already come in contact with the virus and had developed an immunity to it,” they wrote.

They concluded that “when the epidemic officially began, the new coronavirus had already been circulating among the population for a while.”

NOTE OF CAUTION

Meanwhile, Italians are looking forward to another date — June 3, when they will be allowed to move freely within the country again, and not just within the region they live in.

For many, that means a holiday by the sea, a trip to a country house, or a visit to distant friends and family.

However, Regional Affairs Minister Francesco Boccia sounded a note of caution.

In an interview earlier on Thursday, he told Mattino Cinque TV program that the new nationwide coronavirus monitoring system which was put in place last week “will allow us to know whether a region is at low, medium or high risk” of infection.

Whether or not Italians will get to travel beginning on June 3 “depends on the region” they want to reach and its level of risk, Boccia said.

“If it is a low-risk region, probably yes,” the minister said.

“For almost three months we have been reading tough, difficult data — we must never forget that 32,000 Italians are no longer with us because of COVID-19,” Boccia said.

Like the prime minister, he also warned the youth against partying in public.

“We all want our teens and young adults to be happy,” said Boccia, a father of three, including two teenagers. “But public parties are intolerable. Safety is not optional — it is an obligation.”

Conte and Boccia’s comments came after reports of young people crowding together in public, especially in Milan, since the end of the lockdown.