Italy eases COVID-19 curbs as infections decline, but deaths still high

ROME (Reuters) – Lockdown measures will be eased from Monday in six Italian regions, the health ministry ruled on Friday, even as the nationwide daily death toll remains well above 400.

New infections have fallen by 30% over the last five days compared with the same period last week, and the national health institute (ISS) said the “R” reproduction number has declined to 0.92 from 0.98 a week earlier. An “R” number above 1 indicates that infection numbers will grow at an exponential rate.

Italy operates a four-tier, color-coded system to calibrate the restrictions in place in its 20 regions.

Much of the industrial north worst-affected by the epidemic will be lowered from the highest-tier red, where people can only leave their homes for work, health reasons or emergencies, to tier-three orange, where restrictions on business and movement are slightly less severe.

This includes Lombardy, around the financial capital Milan, and Piedmont centered on Turin. Central Tuscany also passes from red to orange, while the island of Sardinia is the only region to move from orange to red.

A month ago Sardinia was the only region to be on the lowest-tier white, meaning daily life was almost as normal, underscoring the speed with which infections can accelerate in the absence of curbs.

Overall, from Monday there will be 16 orange regions and four red ones, with none in the two lower tiers, yellow and white.

The health system remains under acute strain and intensive care unit occupancy is still above the critical threshold, the ISS said, and daily deaths continue to pile up.

Friday saw the tally rise by 718, the largest increase this year, although the health minister said this figure was bloated by late reporting from the island of Sicily which had failed to register 258 deaths from “previous months.”

Italy has so far recorded 113,579 COVID-linked fatalities, the second-highest toll in Europe after Britain and the seventh-highest in the world.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Gavin Jones and Hugh Lawson)

Italy’s old pay high price for regional vaccine lottery

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Agostino Airaudo, 86, died of the coronavirus on March 21. Ninety minutes earlier he had received an SMS telling him that, after weeks of waiting, he had got an appointment for a vaccine.

Ten days later, his 82-year-old wife Michela also died of the disease.

Unlike many other European countries, Italy did not give automatic precedence to its army of pensioners when it launched its inoculation campaign in December, even though they were bearing the brunt of the disease.

The failure to provide swifter protection has cost thousands of lives, experts say, and stoked anger about a fragmented health system under which regions take most of the decisions and the central government has struggled to impose a clear strategy.

“People could have been saved,” said Giorgio Airaudo, the son of Agostino and Michela, and the head of Italy’s powerful FIOM metalworkers’ union in the northern region of Piedmont.

“As soon as the vaccines arrived, there was no justification for not giving priority to fragile people and the elderly…,” he told Reuters by telephone.

“But this did not happen. The government made suggestions and each region did as they pleased.”

More than 110,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Italy, the world’s seventh highest tally. Their average age was 81, and 86% of them were 70 or over, data from the ISS national health institute shows.

Many countries, including Britain and the United States, vaccinated old people first, recognizing their great vulnerability.

Italy’s government also said the over 80’s should get priority, but a haphazard rollout has allowed professionals including lawyers, magistrates and university professors to move to the head of the queue in many places.

As the death rate has fallen in much of Europe thanks to the early impact of the vaccines, Italy’s has stayed stubbornly high, and its average daily toll of 431 during the past week was the highest on the continent, according to Reuters data.

Acknowledging the problem, Prime Minister Mario Draghi – the epitome of measured calm during his eight-year stint as head of the European Central Bank – on Thursday made an impassioned plea to fellow Italians to wait their turn.

“With what conscience does someone jump the line knowing that they are leaving a person who is over 75 or fragile exposed to the real risk of dying?” Draghi told reporters.

“Stop vaccinating people under 60,” he said, raising his voice.

‘DEATH, PAIN AND GRIEF’

At the start of this year, Italy’s 20 regions focused almost exclusively on protecting health workers, even those in their 20s with no contact with patients. Most places did not begin mass vaccinations for over 80’s until mid-February.

By that stage, France and Germany had already given a first dose to 20% of their over 80s.

Italy has since caught up with the EU average, with data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control showing it had given at least one shot to 62% of its over 80’s. But just 13.4% of people in their 70’s have had a first dose, the lowest rate in Europe after Bulgaria.

Regional governors say they followed government guidelines and blame delays on slower-than-expected vaccine deliveries.

They also say they were blindsided in January when the national drug regulator advised that the AstraZeneca/Oxford shot should only be used for the under 55’s.

They had planned to give this shot to older residents and had to change strategy. Now guidance has swung round again with a recommendation that it should be used only for over-60s after concern emerged that it may cause rare blood clots in young adults.

Matteo Villa, a researcher with the ISPI think-tank, says other EU nations facing the same issues were more agile. His analysis suggests Italy could have saved 11,900 lives had it focused more on the elderly.

“Central government did not control the situation and then, amazingly, many of the regions did not prepare carefully for the rollout,” Villa told Reuters.

He said some regions competed with each other to see who could administer the most shots, and found it easier to corral health workers than the elderly.

“This isn’t a race …This is a situation where there is death, pain and grief,” said the union boss Airaudo.

His parents lived in Piedmont, which is centered on Turin. They both had serious ailments and had registered with their doctor for the vaccine. An algorithm adopted by the region decides who gets a vaccine, and when.

Piedmont health officials did not respond to questions over why they had not received timely shots.

‘AN INCREDIBLE MESS’

Adding to the confusion, each region uses its own booking system.

Franco Perco, 81, lives in the central Marche region, a COVID-19 hotspot. He is still waiting for a vaccine appointment despite numerous phone calls to helplines and efforts to book online.

“I feel very scared. There is no clarity,” said Perco, the former head of one of Italy’s major national parks. “I am going out as little as possible.”

Under the constitution, Italian regions have broad autonomy over healthcare decision-making, even during a pandemic.

In Tuscany, Abruzzo and Sicily, magistrates and lawyers were given priority status. In the southern region of Molise, journalists were allowed early vaccinations. Lax supervision in Sicily meant one priest was able to get his congregation vaccinated regardless of age.

“It created an incredible mess. It has served as a lesson for us to be more careful,” said Angelo Aliquò, the health agency director general in the Sicilian city of Ragusa.

Health undersecretary Andrea Costa, who took office in February, told Reuters that mistakes had been made in not clearly identifying priority groups.

“There will be time in the future to analyze what happened, but now we need to achieve as soon as possible immunization which will allow a return to normal life,” he said.

Angered by the sudden death of both his parents, Airaudo hopes there will be a reckoning.

“I always thought that decentralization was about being close to the people. Instead, today we have confusion, difference, injustice and delays,” he said.

Italy arrests navy captain for spying, expels Russian diplomats

By Crispian Balmer and Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Italy expelled two Russian diplomats on Wednesday after police said they had caught an Italian navy captain passing secret documents to a Russian military official in return for money.

The Italian captain and the Russian embassy staff member were arrested in a car park in Rome and accused of “serious crimes tied to spying and state security” after their meeting on Tuesday night, Italian Carabinieri police said.

The suspects were not officially identified. A police source said the captain was called Walter Biot and had accepted 5,000 euros ($5,900) in return for the information.

It was not immediately possible to contact Biot, who was in custody, and the name of his lawyer was not disclosed.

Ansa news agency said NATO documents were among the files that the Italian had handed over, raising potential security worries for other members of the Western military alliance.

Italy immediately summoned the Russian ambassador Sergey Razov and expelled two Russian officials believed to be involved in what Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio called an “extremely grave matter”.

Biot, 54, had the rank of a frigate captain but was working at the defense ministry department tasked with developing national security policy and managing part of the relations with Italy’s allies, a ministry source told Reuters.

Previously, he had worked at the ministry’s external relations unit. His name and picture appear in the book of contacts for Italy’s 2014 European Union presidency.

“The accusation of espionage against Italian and Russian officers shows that we must continue to work closely with Europe and our allies to constantly improve our means of protecting the safety and well-being of our citizens,” Di Maio said.

Russian news agencies, citing the Russian embassy in Italy, said the pair who were expelled worked in the military attaché’s office. Officials did not say whether the Russian army official who had met the captain was one of those ordered to leave.

Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted a Russian lawmaker as saying Moscow would reciprocate for the expulsions, standard practice in such cases.

However, statements from Moscow suggested Russia was keen to play down the incident. The Russian foreign ministry was quoted as saying that it regretted the expulsions, but that they did not threaten bilateral relations.

Earlier, the Kremlin said it did not have information about the circumstances of the case but hoped the two countries would maintain positive and constructive ties.

The incident was the latest in a series of spying accusations in recent months against Russians in European countries. Bulgaria expelled Russian officials on suspicion of spying in March, and the Netherlands did so in December.

Tuesday’s arrests were ordered by prosecutors following a long investigation carried out by the Italian intelligence with the support of the military, the police said.

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Italy mourns its coronavirus dead as third wave builds

BERGAMO, Italy (Reuters) – Flags flew at half mast and thousands of towns held a minute’s silence on Thursday as Italy mourned the victims of a coronavirus epidemic that has killed more than 100,000 in 13 months.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi led tributes in Bergamo, an epicenter of the disease’s first destructive wave a year ago and where city mayor Giorgio Gori said it had left no one unscathed.

“There is not a single person in Bergamo who did not have to say goodbye to a loved one,” he said.

Thursday marked the first anniversary of the day a convoy of army trucks rolled into the city to remove dozens of coffins accumulated in churches and chapels – a stark snapshot of the virus’s untamed power.

“The respect we owe to those who have left us must give us the strength to rebuild the world they dreamed of for their children and grandchildren,” said Draghi, speaking in a “remembrance wood” being created as a living monument to the dead in a local park.

In all, 103,432 deaths linked to coronavirus have been reported in Italy, the seventh highest toll in the world, including 670 in Bergamo and around 6,000 in the surrounding province.

Gori, wearing a sash in the colors of the national flag, said the real number in his city was much higher as only very few people were tested for the virus in the early days.

Like much of Italy, Bergamo is once again in lockdown to try to contain a third COVID-19 wave that on Wednesday saw a record 324 people nationwide admitted to intensive care, and only a few people were allowed to attend on Thursday in what is set to become an annual commemoration.

Anxious to end the health crisis, Draghi said Italy’s ongoing vaccination campaign was a priority and promised that inoculations would carry on unhindered whatever decision the European Medicines Agency (EMA) took about the AstraZeneca shot.

Italy, like several European countries, suspended the use of AstraZeneca vaccines this week over concerns about unusual blood disorders that had appeared in a handful of people. EMA is due to release findings about those cases later in the day.

“Whatever its decision, the vaccination campaign will continue with the same intensity, with the same objectives. Increased supplies of some vaccines will help compensate for delays by other pharmaceutical companies,” Draghi said.

(Writing by Crispian Balmer; editing by John Stonestreet)

Germany, Italy, France to halt AstraZeneca shots, further hitting EU vaccination campaign

By Thomas Escritt and Stephanie Nebehay

BERLIN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Germany, France and Italy said on Monday they would stop administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after several countries reported possible serious side-effects, throwing Europe’s already struggling vaccination campaign into disarray.

Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.

The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow rollout of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s.

Germany warned last week it was facing a third wave of infections, Italy is intensifying lockdowns and hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that although the risk of blood clots was low, it could not be ruled out.

“This is a professional decision, not a political one,” Spahn said adding he was following a recommendation of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s vaccine regulator.

France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by the EU medicine regulator due on Tuesday. Italy said its halt was a “precautionary and temporary measure” pending the regulator’s ruling.

Austria and Spain have stopped using particular batches and prosecutors in the northern Italian region of Piedmont earlier seized 393,600 doses following the death of a man hours after he was vaccinated. It was the second region to do so after Sicily, where two people had died shortly after having their shots.

The World Health Organization appealed to countries not to suspend vaccinations against a disease that has caused more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide.

“As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

The United Kingdom said it had no concerns, while Poland said it thought the benefits outweighed any risks.

“UNUSUAL” SYMPTOMS

AstraZeneca’s shot was among the first and cheapest to be developed and launched at volume since the coronavirus was first identified in central China at the end of 2019 and is set to be the mainstay of vaccination programs in much of the developing world.

Thailand announced plans on Monday to go ahead with the Anglo-Swedish firm’s shot after suspending its use on Friday but Indonesia said it would wait for the WHO to report.

The WHO said its advisory panel was reviewing reports related to the shot and would release its findings as soon as possible. But it said it was unlikely to change its recommendations, issued last month, for widespread use, including in countries where the South African variant of the virus may reduce its efficacy.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has also said there was no indication the events were caused by the vaccination and that the number of reported blood clots was no higher than seen in the general population.

The handful of reported side-effects in Europe have upset vaccination programs already under pressure over slow rollouts and vaccine skepticism in some countries.

The Netherlands said on Monday it had seen 10 cases of possible noteworthy adverse side-effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, hours after the government put its vaccination program on hold following reports of potential side-effects in other countries.

Denmark reported “highly unusual” symptoms in a 60-year-old citizen who died from a blood clot after receiving the vaccine, the same phrase used on Saturday by Norway about three people under the age of 50 it said were being treated in hospital.

“It was an unusual course of illness around the death that made the Danish Medicines Agency react,” the agency said in a statement late on Sunday.

One of the three health workers hospitalized in Norway after receiving the AstraZeneca shot had died, health authorities said on Monday, but there was no evidence that the vaccine was the cause. They said they would continue their probe and that no more suspected cases had been reported since Saturday.

AstraZeneca said earlier it had conducted a review covering more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the UK which had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.

Investigations into potential side-effects are complicated as the history of each case and circumstances surrounding a death or illness are examined. Austrian authorities have said their review of the AstraZeneca batch will take about two weeks.

The EMA has said that as of March 10, a total of 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to 5 million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.

The WHO said that as of March 12, more than 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered around the world with no deaths found to have been caused by any of them.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANKOK and Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel in BERLIN, Angelo Amante in ROME, Christian Lowe in PARIS, Toby Sterling in AMSTERDAM, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in COPENHAGEN and Stanley Widianto in JAKARTA; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Nick Macfie)

Italy to impose nationwide coronavirus lockdown over Easter weekend – draft decree

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – Italy will be placed under a nationwide lockdown over the Easter weekend for the second year running, a draft decree law seen by Reuters said on Friday, underlining the struggle to stem a fresh surge in coronavirus cases.

Non-essential shops will be shuttered nationwide from April 3-5. On those days, Italians will only be allowed to leave their homes for work, health or emergency reasons.

However, a number of regions including wealthy Lombardy, which is centered on Italy’s financial capital Milan, look certain to be placed under full lockdown from Monday because of the recent jump in infections and hospitalizations.

“I hope that this will be the last sacrifice asked of our citizens,” said Lombardy President Attilio Fontana.

Italy, the first Western country hit hard by the pandemic, saw infections rise by 10% this week compared with the week before, and officials have warned that the situation is deteriorating as new, highly contagious variants gain ground.

The country was placed under its first nationwide lockdown a year ago, which lasted 10 weeks. A second lockdown was imposed at Christmas. In recent months, the government has introduced restrictions at a regional level, depending on case numbers.

It was not immediately clear how the decree would affect churchgoers in the Catholic country. However, it was expected to be similar to provisions last Christmas when people were allowed to go to churches in their neighborhoods.

A Vatican source said Pope Francis’ Easter Eve Mass likely would be held a few hours earlier so that faithful could get home in time for Italy’s 10 p.m. curfew and that the pontiff’s Holy Week activities before Easter would be held in the Vatican with a limited number of participants.

Unlike last year, the new decree, which was expected to be approved by Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s cabinet later on Friday, allows for limited visits to friends and relatives over the Easter holiday – for example to see elderly parents.

But the decree also imposes tougher curbs for the country’s low-risk “yellow” regions as of Monday, severely limiting movement between towns and closing restaurants and bars.

“The spread of the virus is accelerating due to the impact of variants. We agree with the government’s choices,” Stefano Bonaccini, president of Italy’s conference of regions, said in a statement after meeting ministers.

Alongside some nationwide measures, Italy calibrates restrictions in its 20 regions according to a four-tier, color-coded system (white, yellow, orange and red) based on infection levels and revised every week.

Italy has reported more than 100,000 deaths from the disease since discovering its first cases 13 months ago, the seventh highest toll worldwide.

(Reporting by Angelo Amante; Editing by Crispian Balmer/Mark Heinrich)

Speeding up vaccinations will lead Italy out of crisis: PM Draghi

ROME (Reuters) – Speeding up Italy’s vaccination campaign will enable the country to overcome the coronavirus crisis, Prime Minister Mario Draghi said on Monday, adding that his government would do whatever was necessary to protect lives.

“The pandemic is not yet over, but with the acceleration of the vaccine plan, a way out is not far off,” Draghi said in a speech to mark international women’s day, his first such public address since taking office last month.

Italy is poised to become the seventh country in the world to register more than 100,000 COVID-related deaths and health officials have warned that the country faces a third wave of cases as a more contagious variant of the disease gains ground.

“We are all facing a new worsening of the health emergency these days,” Draghi said.

“Our task, and I am referring to all the institutions, is to safeguard the lives of Italians by all means possible and to allow a return to normality as soon as possible. Every life counts,” he added.

Since taking charge of the country at the head of a broad government of national unity, Draghi has looked to speed up vaccinations and has put pressure on pharmaceutical companies to honor their contracts and make up supply shortfalls.

Italy, which has a population of around 60 million, had administered 5.41 doses of vaccines as of early Monday, with 1.65 million people receiving the recommended two shots.

Draghi has suggested that first jabs should take precedence rather than stockpiling supplies for eventual second doses.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Angelo Amante)

Italy 2020 death toll is highest since World War Two as COVID-19 hits

ROME (Reuters) – Italy registered more deaths in 2020 than in any other year since World War Two, according to data that suggest COVID-19 caused thousands more fatalities than were officially attributed to it.

Total deaths in Italy last year amounted to 746,146, statistics bureau ISTAT said, an increase of 100,525, or 15.6%, compared with the average of the 2015-2019 period.

Looking at the period from when Italy’s COVID-19 outbreak came to light on Feb. 21 to the end of the year, the “excess deaths” were even higher at 108,178, an increase of 21% over the same period of the last five years.

The Istituto Superiore di Sanita, Italy’s top health institute, officially attributed 75,891 deaths to the new coronavirus last year, some 70% of this total excess mortality.

Italy has continued to register hundreds of COVID-19 deaths per day this year. Its updated tally stood at 98,974 on Thursday.

Officially, COVID-19 accounted for 10% of deaths in Italy last year from Feb. 21, with marked regional disparities.

It was the cause of 14.5% of all deaths in the northern regions where the outbreak was first reported in Italy. In central areas it was responsible for 7% of all deaths and in southern ones it accounted for 5%.

Of the 100,525 excess deaths last year, 76% of the total were among people over the age of 80 and 20% were among those aged between 65 and 79, ISTAT said.

(Reporting By Gavin Jones, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Italy reports 348 coronavirus deaths on Monday, 10,800 new cases

ROME (Reuters) -Italy reported 348 coronavirus-related deaths on Monday against 347 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections fell to 10,800 from 14,245.

However, the number of swab tests also fell, as often happens at the weekend, amounting to just 77,993 against a previous 102,974.

Italy has registered 75,680 COVID-19 deaths since its outbreak came to light on Feb. 21, the highest toll in Europe and the fifth highest in the world. The country has also reported 2.166 million cases to date, the health ministry said.

Patients in hospital with COVID-19 stood at 23,317 on Monday, up 242 on the day before. There were 136 admissions to intensive care units, compared with 154 on Sunday.

The current number of intensive care patients fell by four to 2,579, reflecting those who died or were discharged after recovery.

When Italy’s second wave of the epidemic was accelerating fast in the first half of November, hospital admissions were rising by about 1,000 per day, while intensive care occupancy was increasing by about 100 per day.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Angelo Amante)

Europe crosses 500,000 COVID-19 deaths as new variant spreads

By Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia

(Reuters) – Europe became the first region worldwide to cross 500,000 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, according to a Reuters tally, as a new variant of the coronavirus discovered in Britain threatened the region’s prevention measures to curb the pandemic.

Reports of the mutated variant out of England prompted a pre-Christmas lockdown and have forced dozens of countries to close their borders to British travelers this week.

Italy, the nation with the highest death toll in Europe, on Sunday detected a patient infected with the new variant as have Denmark and France.

To curb the spread, European countries are considering screening passengers on flights from UK and obligating quarantine for travelers upon arrival.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom became the first nation to approve the Pfizer Inc – BioNTech vaccine followed by the United States, European Union and other countries.

Europe has reported about 30% of the global COVID-19 fatalities and cases so far, according to a Reuters tally.

Europe’s death toll has accelerated in recent months. Since the first COVID-19 death was reported in France in February, it took eight months for the region to reach 250,000 deaths. It took only 60 days for the region to go from 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.

France, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom and Russia have reported hundreds of deaths a day and the five countries account for almost 60% of the region’s total fatalities.

Globally there have been 77.52 million cases and 1.71 million deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

(Reporting by Anurag Maan and Shaina Ahluwalia in Bengaluru; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)