ROME – Italy on Thursday urged tourists spooked by the coronavirus not to stay away, but efforts to reassure the world it was managing the outbreak were overshadowed by confusion over case numbers.
Foreign minister Luigi Di Maio condemned “false reports circulating abroad” about panic in Italy, cities in lockdown and runs on supermarkets, saying they were doing “more damage” than the virus itself.
“If schools are open, if our children are going to school, tourists and business people can come,” he told foreign journalists.
Italy has the largest coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with 14 deaths, and the government has stopped all movement in and out of 11 towns in two regions in the north — Lombardy and Veneto — in an effort to stop it spreading.
Twelve regions have reported at least one case of the virus, including Sicily at the country’s southern tip.
But Di Maio insisted: “Out of over 7,000 towns in Italy, just over a dozen are affected by this epidemic.”
He said Italy had more cases than other European countries because it was performing mass tests — over 11,000 so far, which caught positive cases that did not, however, result in illness.
A positive result does not mean a person is contagious.
Italy was “reliable and transparent,” Di Maio said, adding it was being unfairly penalized by holidaymakers canceling trips to Milan’s Gothic Duomo or the canal city of Venice over fears they might catch the virus.
Hotel bookings in Milan have plummeted to 20 percent, compared to nearly 90 percent normally at this time of year, while in Rome — far from the northern hotspots — over 50 percent of bookings have been canceled until the end of March, hotel association Federalberghi said.
But as he spoke, officials admitted that two different ways of compiling case numbers in Italy meant the toll appeared higher than for other countries, which are using different criteria.
Walter Ricciardi, a WHO member who advises the Italian ministry of health, said regional authorities had not been waiting for verification of cases by the National Health Institute (ISS), before announcing results, which meant that asymptomatic cases were being lumped in with clinical ones.
The ISS is supposed to split cases into clinical and asymptomatic cases, and report the former to the World Health Organization, which only includes contagious cases in its global tally.
The health ministry “for transparency reasons” was forced to pass on all the data to the WHO, Ricciardi said.
That meant the numbers reported by the WHO included an unknown number of non-contagious sufferers.
All of those who have died so far in Italy were either elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions.
Wide-ranging measures to halt the spread of the virus have affected tens of millions of people in the north of Italy, with schools closed and cultural and sporting events canceled.
Ricciardi said it would be clear “from next week” whether such measures meant Italy had stemmed the spread of COVID-19.
“I am optimistic. Spring and milder temperatures can help,” he said.
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