ROME - Italian officials are scrambling to contain an outbreak of coronavirus, or COVID-19, after separate cases were confirmed Tuesday in Tuscany and Sicily, which is hundreds of kilometers away from the north of the country, where nearly a dozen towns are on lockdown following ten virus-related deaths.
The lack of a clear source of the outbreak in the affluent northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto is raising the alarm of Italy's public health officials, who have been hunting for "Patient Zero," the first person in the country to be infected with the virus.
The surge of 283 positive cases in parts of northern Italy in recent days is prompting anxiety in neighboring countries with officials saying coronavirus is "knocking at the door."
Austria is considering stopping all rail traffic from Italy and imposing other controls on its border with its southern neighbor. Two Italian emigres who live in the Austrian region of Tyrol, and who recently returned from a trip to northern Italy, tested positive for the virus, according to a local health authority spokeswoman.
Croatia's prime minister confirmed the country's first COVID-19 case Tuesday. Hundreds of tourists at a hotel in the Spanish resort of Tenerife are reportedly being tested after another vacationer, an Italian from Lombardy, tested positive.
British officials announced that anyone who has visited northern Italy in the past two weeks should "self-isolate" at home, if he or she develops flu-like symptoms. That's in line with official guidance for those who have returned from vacations or business trips to China and South Korea. Britain's health minister, Matt Hancock, said he didn't know of any Britons trapped in the nearly dozen northern towns being quarantined by the Italian government, but the "significant outbreak" of cases was "worrying," he added in a broadcast interview.
Two schools in the English county of Cheshire decided Tuesday to shut down after some of their students returned from ski trips in Italy. So far, 13 people in Britain have tested positive for COVID-19; four were travelers repatriated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan.
Globally, there are more than 80,000 suspected and confirmed cases. More than 2,700 people have died from the flu-like virus, according to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which has been collating global figures.
The rapid surge of cases in the north of Italy has prompted panic shopping, with supermarkets across the country, even in the south far from the viral epicenter, packed with families stocking up on food and medicine.
In a superstore in Viterbo, on the northern outskirts of the Italian capital, Rome, retailers were taken aback by the volume of shoppers eager to stock up on water, pasta and dry foods; as people formed long lines in front of registers early in the morning with shopping carts piled high. "That's a lot of people," said Lucretzia, a cashier at Conad Ipermercato. "This is more like what we see on Christmas Eve," she said.
Pharmacists in the town of 55,000 said they had sold out of surgical masks, hand-sanitizers and disinfectant wipes. An assistant at the hardware store Bricofer said all stock of protective masks used by builders and home-improvement enthusiasts had been emptied.
More shoppers arrived by midday, as news broke of two people testing positive in Tuscany, and another COVID-19 case in the Sicilian city of Palermo. Marino Faccini, head of Milan's infectious diseases team, warned that Italy was "at the start of an epidemic." He said the lockdown may have come too late and predicted there would be lots of cases caused by people who left towns just before the lockdown was imposed.
Some governments - and airlines - moved quickly Tuesday to isolate Italy. Kuwait suspended all flights to Italy because of the coronavirus outbreak. Bulgaria Air, meanwhile, said it has stopped its service to Milan until March 27. The announcements drew a sharp response from Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte who said his government had moved quickly to contain the spread of the virus with its lockdown of affected towns and orders to cancel cultural events and sporting events.
Conte said limitations on the movement of Italians imposed by foreign states would be be unacceptable. "We cannot accept it. Our citizens can leave safe and secure, for themselves and for others," he added.
All the deaths from the virus so far in Italy have involved people over the age of 60, most of whom had pre-existing health conditions. The worst-hit region is Lombardy, where six people have died and 212 people have contracted the potentially deadly disease. There have been one death and over 38 positive cases in Veneto, 23 positive cases in Emilia-Romagna, three in Piedmont, and three in Lazio, the region dominated by Rome. The Lazio cases involved an Italian academic, who had returned from Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus originated, and two Chinese tourists.
Some of Italy's regional governors are critical of the government's response, saying they had urged Rome to act more quickly and with much tougher measures. The president of the Lombardy region, Attilio Fontana, said local hospitals had been misinformed by the health ministry on the best ways to handle COVID-19 patients. "Too bad that we followed, unfortunately, the protocols that were given to us by the government. If we had done what we as governors proposed, things would not have gone so far," he told RAI Radio.
Fontana said he and other regional presidents had argued more than a month ago for all Chinese students returning to Italy from vacations to be quarantined. "We were accused of being racist, of wanting to spread panic," he said. But government officials say there's no evidence to support the suggestion that Chinese students may be the ones inadvertently spreading the virus.
European officials say they fear the spread could quickly develop into a pandemic. Officials point out that one of the biggest challenges in containing the virus is that it can be spread by infected people who show barely any symptoms, if any, of ill-health.
U.S. actor Tom Cruise flew from Venice to Britain after filming for the next Mission Impossible movie was postponed. A production worker told Britain's The Sun newspaper: "There have been meetings with officials but they're clear that, as far as they are concerned, there is a serious risk in the area, especially where large numbers are gathered - and this is a huge set. Halting this is extremely expensive, but there's no way anybody involved would take the risk of staying put."