ROME: The death toll from COVID-19 in Italy jumped to 52 on Monday (Mar 2) from 34 the day before and the total number of confirmed cases in Europe's worst affected country climbed past the 2,000 mark.
The increase in deaths was the largest since the outbreak surfaced 10 days ago in the wealthy northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto. Lombardy, around Italy's financial capital Milan, is by far with hardest hit, with 38 casualties.
The virus has since spread south but the vast majority of cases remain centred on the original hotspots, with the addition of Emilia Romagna, another affluent region which borders on both Lombardy and Veneto and now has more cases than Veneto.
In total, 2,036 people have tested positive in Italy, up from 1,694 on Sunday. Of these, 149 have recovered, the civil protection agency said.
"What is comforting is that 50 per cent of the 258 people who tested positive (in the last 24 hours) have no symptoms or are being looked after at home," Angelo Borrelli, head of the agency, told reporters.
In total, Italy has tested 23,345 people for the disease.
The Lombardy regional government urged people over the age of 65 to remain at home, as data showed they were by far the most vulnerable to the highly contagious illness.
"All those who have died (in Lombardy) are people over 65 with underlying health conditions, especially cardiovascular problems," said Giulio Gallera, the region's councillor responsible for welfare policy.
In a worrying development, a policeman and a fireman based in Rome have also tested positive, authorities said, raising the risk of the virus spreading in the Italian capital.
Cases in Rome, Italy's largest city with three million people, had previously been limited to a Chinese couple on holiday and an Italian repatriated from the Chinese city of Wuhan - where the outbreak originated late last year - on a special flight and hospitalised. All three recovered.
On Monday, the Spallanzani infectious diseases hospital where the policeman was staying announced that his wife, two children and sister-in-law were also infected.
The school attended by his son, in the nearby town of Pomezia, was closed and lessons were suspended in the university faculty at Rome's main Sapienza university, attended by his other son.
The coronavirus is taking a heavy toll on Italy's economy, which was already teetering on the verge of recession before the outbreak, with sectors from manufacturing to tourism hit by a plunge in orders.
Several international airlines including Lufthansa Delta Airlines and countries such as the Czech Republic have reduced or suspended flights to Italian cities.
Milan cathedral reopened to the public on Monday but schools and universities remain closed and many companies told staff to work from home.
The top of the UniCredit skyscraper in Milan was lit in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag, in a sign of solidarity with people hit by the virus.
National statistics bureau ISTAT reported on Monday that the 2019 budget deficit came in at 1.6 per cent of national output, the smallest fiscal gap for 12 years.
The much-lower-than-expected reading potentially gives the coalition of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party more leeway to spend and borrow this year - good news with coronavirus costs soaring.
Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri announced on Sunday the cabinet would this week approve 3.6 billion euros (US$3.5 billion) of measures to help companies.
An aid package worth 900 million euros was unveiled on Friday for the worst-impacted zones.