A Third coronavirus stimulus package was announced by the Senate, reaching $2 trillion and including direct payments to individuals and hospitals.
–By Marcus Walker, WSJ
ROME—Italian authorities believe the country’s coronavirus epidemic, the world’s deadliest, is slowing down appreciably after three weeks of national lockdown, a hopeful sign for other Western countries that are following approaches similar to Italy’s with a time lag.
But Italian officials and health experts said it will take until after Easter to cut new infections enough to begin loosening the lockdown and reopen parts of Italy’s economy.
“We seem to be arriving at a sort of plateau, which shows that the measures are working,” said Silvio Brusaferro, president of the National Health Institute, Italy’s main disease-control center.
Italy was the first Western country to suffer a major coronavirus emergency.
Many countries around the world have emulated its response, telling people to stay home and businesses to close unless essential. Italy, where a national lockdown began on March 10, has become a test case of whether Western nations can suppress the pandemic fast enough to avoid a deep economic crisis while using strategies less draconian than China’s.
The government in Rome said 105,792 people had tested positive for the coronavirus by Tuesday evening, an increase of 4,053—or around 4%—from the previous day. New daily infections have fallen from a peak of over 6,500 on March 21.
True number of virus carriers is believed to be much higher, since many people with no or few symptoms haven’t been tested. But other indicators are also breeding confidence that Italy’s lockdown is bringing results. The number of hospital admissions across Italy is slowing, and in Lombardy, the worst-hit region, the number of people in intensive care declined by six to 1,324.
However, Italy recorded another 837 deaths on Tuesday from Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, bringing the nation’s death toll to 12,428, about 58% of which have been in Lombardy. Health experts say deaths are likely to decline well after infections, because many people dying got infected up to several weeks ago. The tricolor national flag hung at half-mast all over Italy on Tuesday to commemorate the dead.
“Before results became evident, too much time passed, too many died,” said Cristina Capellini, a physician from near Bergamo, where deaths and overwhelmed hospitals have made the Lombard city a symbol of Italy’s pain. Dr. Capellini lost her husband to the coronavirus in early March.
“Don’t make the same mistakes we Italians made. Learn from our experience: Be aggressive in containing the spread of the infection at the very beginning,” she said. “We should make sense of this tragedy by changing the approach toward public health care. It should be given the importance it deserves.”
In Bergamo, pressure is finally starting to ease at intensive-care units that have been forced to ration treatment for weeks. The situation is starting to improve slightly at the city’s Papa Giovanni XXIII Hospital, said Mirco Nacuti, an intensive-care doctor there. But some old people are still dying without making it to the hospital, he said: “The tragedy is continuing in private homes, and the official numbers don’t show it because tests aren’t being done.”
“However, they are younger and many are in worse condition due to the fact that they resist longer until calling the ambulance,” said Dr. Rasulo. “Having said that, this characteristic represents the stage where things will soon be slowing down.”
Chiara Appendino, left, Turin’s mayor, stands at attention during a moment of silence to commemorate Italy’s victims on March 31. CREDIT: MARCO BERTORELLO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Other countries in Europe are not yet approaching peaks or plateaus in the spread of the virus, because their outbreaks began later than Italy’s. Data suggest many countries are two to three weeks behind Italy. Some other governments in Europe hope that they will avoid Italy’s high death toll because they imposed social-distancing measures at an earlier stage of contagion. But the death toll in Spain, in particular, is rising dramatically.
The Italian government’s scientific advisers began studying on Monday when and how to relax the lockdowns that have frozen much of the national economy. Officials say full lockdown will have to continue until at least Easter. After that, the plan is to reopen some parts of Italian industry—but under stringent safety rules so that infections don’t accelerate again. Service sectors, including restaurants and bars, aren’t expected to reopen until well into May at the earliest.
The strain on Italy’s economy and public finances has prompted negotiations in Europe about how to support the country financially if its borrowing needs spook bond markets, reawakening memories of the eurozone debt crisis of 2010-12. So far, the intervention of the European Central Bank has keep Italy’s borrowing costs stable.
Denmark, which also imposed social-distancing measures relatively early in March, is also hoping that it can begin to unwind them slowly after Easter. “The corona outbreak has not peaked yet,” said Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, calling on Danes to follow the guidelines and keep their distance. “If we each do what we need to, we will gradually and gently reopen society.”
French authorities hope that daily admissions to intensive care units will start to slow down at the end of this week, thanks to France’s national lockdown. France said 418 patients with Covid-19 died in hospitals in the past day, the worst daily death toll since its epidemic started.
The U.K. has also reported a slower rise in infections in recent days, but “it’s really important not to read too much into this,” said Stephen Powis, medical director for England. “It’s early days; we are not out of the woods.”
Germany’s health minister Jens Spahn said it’s too early to say whether social-distancing measures, including a ban on more than two people gathering, are working yet. New infections in Germany aren’t expected to plateau until mid-April. “We will see how the trend develops by Easter,” said Lothar Wieler, head of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s disease control agency.
Epidemiologists most closely watch the number R0, or the average number of people that virus carriers infect. “We estimate that R0 is now around one, maybe a little below,” compared with between two and three before Italy’s national lockdown, said Giovanni Rezza, head of infectious diseases at the National Health Institute in Rome. Italian authorities hope to push the number to well below one, so that the epidemic starts to fizzle out.
“However, I don’t think Italy or other European countries will be able to reach zero new infections soon,” Dr. Rezza said. Rather, he said, Italy will need to continue fighting the virus with testing and containment measures across the country even after its lockdown ends.
“Maybe we are going to win the first battle, but the war will be long,” he said. “And we lost many people in the field.”
Margherita Stancati and Bojan Pancevski contributed to this article.