MILAN: Italy's prime minister announced a ban on people entering or leaving new coronavirus hotspots as the number of confirmed infections rose sharply to 79 on Saturday (Feb 22), in an outbreak that has claimed two lives in the country.
"In zones considered hotspots, neither entry or exit will be authorised without special permission," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said during a press conference, adding that businesses and schools in the areas would be closed.
The Italian outbreak is concentrated in the northern region of Lombardy. Officials raised the total confirmed cases to 79, from an earlier figure on Saturday of 39 in Lombardy, 12 in Veneto and 3 in Rome.
READ: Fear, isolation cloaks town at centre of Italy's COVID-19 outbreak
Authorities in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto have shut down schools and banned public events while companies from Ray-Ban owner Luxottica to the country's top bank UniCredit have told workers living in the worst hit areas to stay home.
Lombardy and Veneto represent Italy's industrial heart and jointly account for 30 per cent of gross domestic output.
Newspaper Corriere della Sera reported that the virus had also been identified in Milan, Lombardy's largest city and the financial centre of Italy.
"The contagiousness of this virus is very strong and pretty virulent," Lombardy's health chief Giulio Gallera told a press conference earlier on Saturday.
But he cautioned: "Today it's not a pandemic."
Conte warned that the restrictive measures would last for a couple of weeks, corresponding to the length of time the virus incubates. Some 50,000 people, who had already been asked to stay at home by local authorities, will be affected, he said.
Italian authorities have also ordered the postponement of three Serie A football matches on Sunday.
He urged people not to "give in to feelings of panic."
The first death was a 76-year-old woman who was found dead at her home 50km south of Milan on Thursday and tested positive for the coronavirus. A 78-year-old man died of the infection in a hospital near Padua on Friday night.
READ: Italy towns under lockdown after first European COVID-19 death reported
The man's wife and daughter are among 12 people infected by the coronavirus in the Veneto region, where authorities are considering suspending Carnival of Venice events currently taking place.
Lombardy Governor Attilio Fontana said patients in his region totalled 46, including a man currently at San Raffaele hospital in Milan. The city, where Women's Fashion Week is underway, has a population of 1.4 million.
Organisers of the world's biggest eyewear trade fair, MIDO, said on Saturday the coronavirus emergency had prompted them to postpone the event to the end of May. The fair had been due to take place in Milan in a week.
SMALL TOWN AT HEART OF OUTBREAK
The outbreak originated in Codogno, a small town southeast of Milan where Lombardy's first infected patient was treated.
That patient was a 38-year-old man, who fell ill after meeting a friend who had visited China. His condition has stabilised, authorities said.
"All those who have tested positive are people who on February 18-19 had contacts with the emergency room and the hospital of Codogno," Regional Health Councillor Giulio Gallera said, adding 259 people had been screened in the area in the past two days and 35 had tested positive.
"A contagion rate of 13 per cent is quite strong," he said.
Some 50,000 residents in Codogno and nearby towns have been advised to remain indoors. Public gatherings including Sunday church services and football matches have been suspended, and schools and shops have been closed down.
Similar measures were adopted in the small Veneto town of Vo' Euganeo where the male victim lived, and in various other places.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said on Saturday the government was ready to consider further measures.
Italy was the first euro zone country to suspend all direct flights to and from China, after two Chinese tourists from the badly hit city of Wuhan tested positive in Rome in late January.
The Chinese tourists and an Italian national repatriated from Wuhan were the only three cases in Italy until Friday.