Italy was the first European country to be engulfed by the coronavirus, but as the prospect of another lockdown looms for some of its neighbors, the country has managed to avert a resurgence in infections. At least so far.
Three experts who spoke to the Guardian blamed this on good surveillance and contact tracing, as well as the fact that most of the population diligently follows safety rules, with many people wearing protective clothing. face masks outside even if it is not compulsory.
On May 4, when Italy began to ease lockdown restrictions, more than 1,200 new cases were reported in one day. Since July 1, the daily increase has been relatively static, peaking at 306 on July 23 and dropping to 181 on Tuesday. Several coronavirus clusters have emerged across the country, but this is mainly due to infections imported from abroad.
Meanwhile, Spain, France, Germany and Belgium could be on the brink of a second wave after a surge in their number of cases.
“We have been particularly attentive,” said Walter Ricciardi, adviser to the Italian Ministry of Health on the coronavirus epidemic. “We did not reopen the schools, as they did in France… we were attentive to the tracing of contacts and managed to maintain a good chain of command and coordination to limit outbreaks of clusters.
The situation beyond Italy’s borders was one of the reasons why Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Tuesday extended the country’s state of emergency until October despite a significant drop in the rate of ‘infection. This means that he will continue to have the power to impose lockdowns and other security measures without needing parliamentary approval.
“The contagion has subsided, but the numbers show that the virus continues to circulate, giving rise to local epidemics which have been identified and contained,” Conte told the Senate. “The international situation remains worrying and what is happening in the countries close to us obliges us to be vigilant.”
Despite gatherings outside crowded bars and beaches, most physical distancing and the wearing of face masks were widely observed. Regional leaders have acted swiftly against those who do not comply. In Campania, people caught without a mask in confined spaces face a fine of € 1,000, while those who flout quarantine rules in Veneto face heavy fines or jail time.
“Italians take their health very seriously,” Ricciardi said. “If you look at the international data on mask wearers, 90% of Italians wear one, among the highest in the world, and that helps. We react well because we behave well. So for now we are successful, but the most important thing is to continue to be very careful, especially with imported cases.
Italy has banned arrivals from 16 countries deemed high-risk, including Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Peru and Kuwait, and since last week people returning from Romania and Bulgaria must be quarantined for 14 days. The quarantine rule is already in place for non-EU and non-Schengen countries.
Gloria Taliani, infectious disease doctor from the city of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna, said the high number of tests carried out, including on those who have been admitted to hospital for some reason or who are going to a emergency unit, also helped limit the spread of infection.
“This has helped not only to avoid epidemics in hospitals, but also to identify the origin of the infection,” she said. “But we still have to be very careful – physical distancing, masks and frequent hand washing are the basic rules.”
Italy has suffered a brutal first wave of the pandemic, with the virus having killed more than 35,000 people so far. The worst day was March 27, when 919 deaths were reported. On Tuesday there were 11 new deaths. Across the country, 40 people are currently in intensive care with Covid-19, up from more than 4,000 in early April. The median age of those infected in the past 30 days is 42, according to data from the Higher Institute of Health.
Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist at the University of Milan, said Italy was “deadlocked” and that stability may simply be due to a bit of luck.
“For now, things are going well, but we are walking a fine line,” he warned. “This stable situation could end badly or continue, but that would depend on two things: the continued ability to create identity clusters and the behavior of the majority of Italians.