Italian Towns on Lockdown After 2 Virus Deaths, Clusters

February 22, 2020 Updated: February 23, 2020

CODOGNO, Italy—A dozen northern Italian towns were on effective lockdown Saturday after the new virus linked to China claimed two lives in Italy and sickened an increasing number of people who had no direct links to the origin of the virus.

The secondary contagions prompted local authorities in towns in Lombardy and Veneto to order schools, businesses and restaurants closed, and to cancel sporting events and Masses. The mayor of Milan, the business capital of Italy, shuttered public offices.

Hundreds of people who came into contact with the more than 40 people confirmed infected in Italy were in isolation pending test results, and civil protection crews set up a tent camp outside a closed hospital in Veneto to screen medical staff for the virus.

In hard-hit Codogno, where the first patient of the northern cluster was in critical condition, main street was practically a ghost town Saturday, with supermarkets, restaurants and businesses closed. The few people out on the streets were wearing coveted face masks, which were nearly impossible to find in sold-out pharmacies.

The regional president of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, said there were 32 confirmed cases in the region, where 10 towns are under orders to shutter nonessential activities and services.

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A view of the platform at the Codogno train station, near Lodi, Northern Italy on Feb. 22, 2020. (Luca Bruno/AP Photo)

Seven cases were reported in the Veneto region, including that of a 78-year-old man who died late Friday, said the Veneto regional president, Luca Zaia. Two those infected were related to the man who died.

Premier Giuseppe Conte sent condolences to his family, and to the family of an unidentified second victim.

Zaia said Saturday that the contagion showed that the virus is transmitted like any other flu, and that trying to pinpoint a single source of infection or one with direct links to China is no longer effective.

“You can get it from anyone,” he told reporters. “We can expect to have cases of patients who had no contact” with suspected carriers. While the virus isn’t particularly lethal, it can be for the elderly or people with existing conditions, he said.

An initial ordinance penned by the health minister imposed an effective lockdown on 10 Lombardy towns around Lodi, southeast of Milan, after Lombardy reported a quadrupling of cases Friday. But individual cities outside that core cordon area, such as Cremona, issued their own restrictions canceling school after confirming their own cases.

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A man wearing a mask stands in front of the San Biagio church in Codogno, near Lodi, Northern Italy on Feb. 22, 2020. (Luca Bruno/AP Photo)

The numbers of infected were in constant flux, but by Saturday had topped 40 nationwide. A press conference was planned later Saturday to provide the most up-to-date figures.

Authorities urged calm, but acknowledged that the clusters were alarming given the secondary contagions. The first man to be confirmed as infected in Lombardy had met with someone who had returned from China on Jan. 21, but remains without symptoms.

The infected man worked at a Unilever plant near Codogno, and more than 100 of his colleagues were being kept in isolation pending test results.

In Rome, doctors at the Spallanzani infectious disease hospital reported some good news in the otherwise bleak day: An Italian who tested positive for the virus two weeks ago is to be released, and a sickened Chinese tourist has tested negative for the first time. Spallanzani had been caring for these patients for more than two weeks, Italy’s only cases until the clusters emerged in the north on Friday.

Separately Saturday, 19 Italians who spent more than two weeks quarantined on a virus-stricken cruise liner in Japan landed at Rome’s military Pratica di Mare airport. They had been stranded on the Diamond Princess since Feb. 5.

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A bus with a driver (L) wearing protective gear departs from the dockside next to the Diamond Princess cruise ship, at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama port in Japan on Feb. 16, 2020. (Behrouz Mehri/AFP via Getty Images)

Following the first health checks and decontamination process, the passengers were transferred to the military campus of Cecchignola where they will spend a 14-day isolation period.

Britain also welcomed home passengers from the Diamond Princess: 32 British and other European passengers landed at a British military base in southwest England. They will be quarantined for 14 days at Arrowe Park hospital in northwest England, where more than 80 other Britons evacuated from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the center of the outbreak, have already spent time in isolation.

Four U.K. nationals from the Diamond Princess who tested positive for the virus are being treated at hospitals in Japan.

Britain has nine confirmed cases of the virus.

By Luca Bruno and Nicole Winfield