Workers wear masks at the Unilever factory where a 38-year-old working in the research and development branch fall ill with the new virus from China, in Casalpusterlengo, Northern Italy, Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020. A dozen northern Italian towns were on effective lockdown Saturday after the new virus linked to China claimed two fatalities in Italy and sickened an increasing number of people who had no direct links to the origin of the virus. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Italy towns close down amid virus case clusters, 2 deaths

February 22, 2020 - 11:20 am

CODOGNO, Italy (AP) — A dozen towns in northern Italy effectively went into lockdown Saturday after the deaths of two people infected with the new virus from China and a growing cluster of cases with no direct links to the origin of the outbreak abroad.

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

Hundreds of residents and workers who came into contact with an estimated 54people confirmed infected in Italy were in isolation pending test results. Civil protection crews set up a tent camp outside a closed hospital in Veneto to screen medical staff for the virus.

In the town of Codogno, where the first patient identified in the northern cluster was in critical condition, closed supermarkets, restaurants and shops made main street practically a ghost town. The few people out wore face masks, which were coveted items after selling out at pharmacies.

The president of Lombardy, Attilio Fontana, said there were 39 confirmed cases in the region, where 10 towns received orders to suspend nonessential activities and services. A postmortem test on a 77-year-old woman who died came back positive for the virus, though it wasn't clear if the coronavirus disease caused her death.

The Veneto region reported 12 people with the virus, including a 78-year-old man who died late Friday. Two of the region's confirmed infections were in relatives of the man who died, Veneto regional president Luca Zaia said.

Zaia said Saturday that the contagion showed that the virus is transmitted like any flu and that trying to pinpoint a single source for the cases or to establish a link to China no longer were effective containment measures.

“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.

The head of the Lombardy health and welfare ministry, Giulio Gallera, said the region's 39 cases all were connected to the first patient to fall ill there, with patients acquiring the infection either via contact with him or with the hospital in Codogno where he first received treatment Feb. 18.

He had met with a man who returned from China on Jan. 21, but that man remains without symptoms.

More than 250 tests were completed in Lombardy, though hundreds more were being processed, including among the man's colleagues at a Unilever plant near Codogno where he worked, Gallera said.

“Given how contagious it is, it's possible the numbers will increase,” he said.

National and regional officials approved an ordinance that put 10 Lombardy towns in effective lockdown around Lodi, southeast of Milan, after the region reported a quadrupling of cases Friday. But individual cities outside the area covered by the ordinance, such as Cremona, issued their own restrictions after confirming there were local cases.

In Milan itself, however, life was largely continuing on as usual: Inter Milan was still scheduled to play Sampdoria on Sunday night in Italy's Serie A soccer league, and Milan Fashion Week was wrapping up, even though chatter about the rising numbers accompanied the runway shows.

‘’It doesn’t seem to me in this moment for what regards our sector, our fashion week, that there are signs of danger,’’ Carlo Capasa, president of the Italian National Fashion Chamber, told The Associated Press. ‘’We are tranquil and prudent."

The number of confirmed infections rapidly changed, but by Saturday stood at 54 nationwide: 39 in Lombardy, 12 in Veneto and the three in Rome that were Italy's only cases until the clusters emerged in the north Friday.

Authorities urged calm, but acknowledged that the clusters were alarming given the secondary contagions.

In Rome, doctors at the Spallanzani infectious disease hospital treating the first three people in Italy found to be infected with the virus - a Chinese couple from Wuhan and an Italian who contracted the virus in China - reported encouraging news in the otherwise bleak day.

The Italian patient, who tested positive for the virus two weeks ago, was cleared to leave the hospital, while one of the Chinese visitors tested negative for the virus for the first time.

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.

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.

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Winfield reported from Rome. Colleen Barry contributed from Milan. Jill Lawless contributed from London.

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