Health experts urge prudence as Italy readies to reopen

Rome (AFP) –


As the Italian government prepares to announce in coming days the gradual phasing out of the lockdown put in place last month, public health experts continued on Friday to call for caution.

"The virus is still circulating. Everywhere in the country we have to be very careful," Silvio Brusaferro, president of the Instituto Superiore di Sanita (ISS), Italy's top health agency, told reporters on Friday.

In making the tough decisions on which businesses would be allowed to reopen, and when, the Italian government should be guided by extreme prudence, experts said.

In La Stampa daily on Tuesday, virologist Fabrizio Pregliasco said authorities needed to "make choices that involve the lowest possible risk."

"We have to be aware that every tap that opens risks increasing contact and the likelihood of new infections," Pregliasco said.

Italy is expected to slowly reopen beginning on May 4, with more businesses gradually allowed to open in successive weeks, as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tries to mitigate the crushing damage to the economy the coronavirus crisis has already inflicted.

The government said on Friday it estimated that GDP would fall by 8 percent this year.

Conte has tried to balance demands to revive economic activity with public safety needs, but a recent improvement in coronavirus trends has encouraged efforts to loosen the lockdown.

The number of patients with the virus continues to drop, as does the death toll. As of Friday, nearly 26,000 people had died of the coronavirus in Italy.

"The epidemiological situation has clearly improved," the ISS' Brusaferro said. "The number of symptomatic patients is falling more and more."

His colleague Giovanni Rezza, head of ISS' infectious disease department, also stressed that the pressure was now "less obvious" on intensive care units, including in Lombardy, the most affected Italian region.

That, he said, "offers a certain margin in case of a further increase in cases".

The experts also noted that the virus' reproduction rate was now between 0.2-0.7 in all regions. As of 10 March, the day after the entire country was put under quarantine, it ranged between 2 and 3, meaning each patient was infecting an average of two to three people.

"The threshold to restart? For an epidemiologist, it should be zero," said Rezza. "But it is obvious that a country cannot tolerate more than two or three months of confinement."

- No parties, please -

Calculating upcoming risks, Brusaferro said it could take as little as two weeks, maybe less, for the virus reproduction rate to shoot back up above 1 if Italians did not respect social distancing and other safety measures.

Brusaferro has estimated that about 90 percent of Italians had never come into contact with the virus, meaning the hope for so-called "herd immunity" which comes after over 60 or 70 percent of a population is exposed to the virus, was far from being reached.

The quickness with which infections could flare up again is not lost on some politicians, even those like the president of Veneto, Luca Zaia, who has pushed for weeks for an early resumption of activity.

"If you don't want to catch the coronavirus, you have to use the mask," Zaia said Wednesday. "Otherwise it's like riding a motorcycle without a helmet."

The success of Italy's recovery from the virus and the reopening of its economy largely depends on the individual responsibility of citizens, experts said.

"In short, we will be able to go to the park," Brusaferro said. "But not to have a big party in the park."