ROME – One of this weekend's main events commemorating the anniversary of the start of Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak was canceled Thursday after a cluster of new infections traced to the British variant forced localized lockdowns in hardest-hit Lombardy and around the country.
Italy’s Superior Institute of Health reported last week that the British variant represented some 18% of all new infections, but predicted that the number would rise quickly as the variant spread. The institute has warned that new restrictions could become necessary to keep the health care system from once again buckling under.
Brescia’s public hospital, which was overwhelmed during the initial outbreak last year, had planned a daylong conference Saturday on lessons learned from the pandemic. It was to feature the intensive care doctor who diagnosed Italy’s first locally transmitted case, as well as the opening of a commemorative art exhibit dedicated to health care workers worldwide.
But the hospital announced Thursday that it was postponing the event out of a sense of responsibility “considering the rapid evolution of the epidemiological situation.”
It noted that four cities in Lombardy region, including one in the province of Brescia, have recently been placed under the strictest “red zone” lockdown measures following spikes of British variant infections. In those cities, all schools were closed and non-essential commercial activities halted, while personal movement was also restricted.
Other red zones have been imposed in cities in the central regions of Umbria, Tuscany, Abruzzo and Lazio, sparking calls for another nationwide lockdown from hospital doctors who are once again seeing their ICU beds fill up.
“I foresee that the national health care system will suffer very heavily," said Dr. Alberto Albani, the regional COVID-19 coordinator in Abruzzo, where the provinces of Chieti and Pescara have been placed under red zone lockdown measures because of variant spikes.
He acknowledged that the economic impact of another national lockdown would be hard to accept, “but I believe that only a serious lockdown of three weeks across all the national territory would block the pandemic.”
Italy's outbreak officially began Feb. 21 in the Lombardy town of Codogno, when officials announced that a 38-year-old marathoner with no ties to China or a known positive case tested positive. Italy would go on to become the epicenter of the outbreak in Europe, though it won international praise for having largely tamed infections after a strict 10-week spring lockdown and production shutdown.
Infections roared back in the fall, killing more people than during the initial outbreak. But the government has shied away from another full-fledged national lockdown, instead placing individual regions into various levels of restrictions based on infection rates and hospital capacity.
In addition to the Brescia anniversary event, officials in Codogno were planning a daylong commemoration, featuring a Mass and the inauguration of a memorial to COVID-19 victims.
On Thursday, Italy added another 13,762 infections in line with its average daily caseload for the past several weeks, bringing its confirmed total caseload to nearly 2.76 million. Another 347 people died, bringing the confirmed death toll to 94,887, the second highest in Europe after Britain.
The country is now trying to ramp up its vaccination campaign, and Lombardy on Thursday finally began inoculating residents over age 80. Italy had prioritized health care workers and residents of nursing homes with its first doses, but many regions are already two weeks into the over-80 vaccination campaign.
AP visual journalist Andrea Rosa reported from Pescara, Italy.