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Pope delivers Sunday service by livestream as Italy’s coronavirus cases mount

People wear protective face masks on St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on March 6, 2020 after the Vatican reports its first case of coronavirus.
People wear protective face masks on St. Peter's Square in Vatican City on March 6, 2020 after the Vatican reports its first case of coronavirus. © Remo Casilli, Reuters

Pope Francis has delivered Sunday prayers by livestream in a bid to control crowds as the coronavirus death toll in Italy rose to 233, with more than 5,800 cases reported, making Italy Europe’s worst-hit country.

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Italian officials on Saturday said the number of coronavirus cases leapt by more than 1,200 in a 24-hour period, with the death toll rising to 233, as Italy reported the most deaths outside China, where the epidemic emerged in December.

Entire towns are quarantined in the north, the worst-hit area, known as “red zones”. The Italian government is set to adopt new tough measures to contain the virus, including a quarantine on the entire Lombardy region around Milan as well as areas around and including Venice and the northern cities of Parma and Rimini, Italian media reported Saturday.

A draft of the government resolution obtained by Italy's Corriere Della Sera newspaper and other media said movement into and out of the regions would be severely restricted until April 3.

As the streets of Rome and several northern cities in the worst-hit areas emptied due to stringent isolation measures, Pope Francis decided to deliver Sunday's prayer by livestream.

The 83-year-old pontiff broke with centuries of tradition by enlisting the help of technology to keep crowds from descending on St. Peter's Square for the traditional Angelus Prayer.

"The prayer will be broadcast via livestream by Vatican News and on screens in Saint Peter's Square," the Vatican said in a statement.

It had originally promised to review the Argentine-born pope's schedule "to avoid the dissemination" of the new COVID-19 disease.

The Vatican appears to believe that the pope's absence from his traditional spot at the window will keep the crowds on the vast square down and the threat of contagion low.

The Vatican is in the process of unrolling unprecedented health precautions designed to keep the city-state's 450 mostly elderly residents safe.

It recorded its first COVID-19 infection on Thursday and was awaiting the results of a test on another person who appeared at a Vatican-organised event last month.

Coalition leader gets virus

The Italian government finds itself at the forefront of the global fight against an epidemic that has convulsed the markets and paralysed global supply chains since late last year.

Ministers decided at an all-night emergency meeting to call in retired doctors as part of an effort to bolster the strained healthcare system with 20,000 additional staff.

The head of the Italian ruling coalition's junior partner became the latest high-profile figure to confirm coming down with the new disease.

"I am fine," the Democratic Party's Nicola Zingaretti said on Facebook. "I will have to stay home for the next few days."

The accelerating spread of the illness emptied Italian train stations and turned usually thronged parts of Rome into a ghost town.

Many of the city's outdoor restaurants and cafes were either closed on Friday night or had free tables overseen by forlorn staff with little to do but chat.

The expansive street that runs from Rome's Colosseum along the Forum was deserted and the magnificent ruins stood in their natural splendour – and without being swarmed by tourists – on a sunny Saturday afternoon.

US military sailor confirmed with coronavirus in Italy

A US sailor deployed to the southern Italian city of Naples tested positive for the coronavirus, the US military said on Saturday, in the second confirmed case among US forces following another in South Korea.

“The member is currently restricted to their residence, receiving supportive and medical care in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control,” the military’s European Command said in a statement.

“Military health professionals are conducting a thorough contact investigation to determine whether any other personnel may have been exposed,” it said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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