Europe is bracing for an impending coronavirus epidemic, after Italy reported another huge surge in infections Thursday.
Italian officials announced that the death toll in the country had risen to 14, with 528 others infected — up more than 200 in just two days. Italy has been the center of the outbreak in Europe, and the number of cases there has surged since a cluster of 16 patients was detected last Friday in the northern region of Lombardy, a popular skiing and tourism destination.
Since then, the virus has spread rapidly to other countries through patients who have recently travelled to northern Italy. Spain, Germany, Denmark, and the United Kingdom all reported new patients Thursday who tested positive for the virus after traveling to the region, adding to cases in Austria, Croatia, Romania, Greece, Switzerland, and North Macedonia who were infected the same way.
In response, Italian authorities have placed 11 northern towns under quarantine, including Codogno, the Lombardy town that the local press has dubbed “the Wuhan of Italy,” where the local outbreak began. No one is permitted to enter or leave.
Elsewhere on the continent, officials, companies, and schools have ramped up their responses to the growing outbreak.
French President Emmanuel Macron didn’t mince his words Thursday during a visit to a Parisian hospital where the first French person died of COVID-19 days earlier.
“We are facing a crisis, an epidemic that is coming,” said Macron. “We know we are just at the beginning.”
The French government has asked people returning from Lombardy or Veneto — another popular tourist region in the north — to stay at home and keep their children out of school. British schools are closing their doors to students returning from northern Italian ski trips.
Two major rugby matches between Ireland and Italy, scheduled to be played in Dublin over the weekend, have also been postponed due to fears of contagion.
Macron’s comments echoed a warning from German Health Minister Jens Spahn late Wednesday that the country was at “the beginning of a coronavirus epidemic,” as the spread of the disease in Europe entered a new phase.
“The infection chains are partially no longer trackable, and that is a new thing,” Spahn said.
“We are acting swiftly and adapting our reactions to the current situation, and unfortunately I have to say that the situation has changed in the past hours.”
In the U.K., where there have been 15 confirmed cases, three major companies have asked staff not to come in to their London offices due to fears a staff member may be carrying the virus. One of the affected companies, oil giant Chevron, said it had asked 300 staff to work from home after one of its employees became ill after a weekend ski trip to Italy.
Other large companies, such as French skincare and cosmetics company L’Oréal and Swiss food group Nestlé, have asked staff to cancel work travel in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, a number of British schools closed over the fears of the virus, while British childcare centers began issuing directives Thursday that they would no longer accept children showing possible coronavirus symptoms.
But despite the growing concerns over the virus, European Union officials said Thursday that they aren’t considering closing national borders within the bloc’s border-free travel area in response.
At least 82,500 people have now been infected globally, with over 2,800 dead, according to the World Health Organization. The largest number of infections outside China is in South Korea, which confirmed 505 new cases on Thursday, bringing the total number of cases there to 1,766.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in Geneva on Thursday that the growing number of cases outside China is now the greatest concern for health officials.
“It’s what’s happening in the rest of the world that’s now our greatest concern," Tedros said. “No country should assume it won’t get cases. That could be a fatal mistake. This virus does not respect borders.”
Cover: A couple wearing face masks stroll outside St. Peter's Square, at the Vatican, Thursday, Feb. 27, 2020. In Europe, an expanding cluster in northern Italy is eyed as a source for transmissions of the COVID-19 disease (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)