Italy set a new record for coronavirus infections on Thursday, the second day in a row, as the second wave of the global outbreak surpassed the darkest days of the first — at least in terms of the infection rate.
The Ministry of Health reported that there were 8,804 new infections nationally in the last 24 hours, up from 7,332 the previous day. Both grim figures surpassed the previous high of 6,554 recorded on March 21.
The development came hours after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte walked back his previous vows not to issue another national lockdown like the one that gripped the country from March to May.
“I cannot make predictions,” Conte said, according to Corriere Della Sera, one of Italy’s most influential media, “A lot will depend on the behavior of citizens. The winning formula is to collaborate and respect the rules put in place by the government.”
Those rules have tightened significantly in recent weeks, including mandatory mask use outdoors, along with new restrictions on social gatherings, restaurants, sporting events, and scholastic activities. Conte said more restrictions could be in the works if the situation worsens.
The hardest-hit region was by far Lombardy, which includes Italy’s financial capital of Milan. The region, which accounts for around one-sixth of Italy’s population, had 2,067 new cases, nearly a quarter of all the new infections on Thursday.
Lombardy was also the hardest hit region in the first stage of the pandemic. As of Thursday Lombardy has registered a total of 118,711 cases, around 30 percent of the national total of 381,602 since February. The region’s total is about three times higher than any other Italian region.
The total number of active cases nationally edged toward 100,000 Thursday, at 99,266, the highest level since May 4 and approaching the peak of 108,077 from April 18.
But there are positive signals as well. Doctors have pointed out that current coronavirus testing rates in Italy are as much as seven times higher than in March, which implies a positivity rate far lower than in the spring, despite the higher number of infections.
Additionally, the mortality rate and the number of patients in intensive care units were also far below the highs from early in the pandemic. Italy recorded 83 deaths from the virus on Thursday, the highest since June 5, and nearly doubled the 43 deaths recorded Wednesday, but still far below the 793 deaths registered on March 21, when the infection rate set its previous peak. Similarly, 586 people are in intensive care units Thursday, 47 more from the previous day but well below the 2,857 on March 21.
The rise in coronavirus infections in recent weeks has had a ripple effect across the country.
In the ongoing Giro d’Italia professional bicycle race, two teams withdrew previously due to positive cases among its riders and on Thursday it was revealed 17 security officers had tested positive as well.
Also on Thursday, the blue-chip index on the Italian Stock Exchange fell nearly 3 percent on coronavirus fears.
In at least three of Italy’s 20 regions — the southern region of Campania, and the northern regions of Liguria and Lombardy — localized lockdowns went into effect either Wednesday or Thursday in an effort to contain infection clusters.
That might not be enough, according to Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases section at Sacco Hospital in Milan. Galli told Corriere Della Sera that stricter measures had to be taken over the next 15 days in order to avoid a national outbreak of the virus.
If that happens, the Christmas holidays could be at risk in what would be another massive blow to the Italian tourism industry shuttered for most of the high season under the national lockdown.
Reports in La Repubblica and Today both said that if no lockdown is issued before then, a temporary lockdown could be in the works for December when offices and factories traditionally close so workers can travel to spend the period with family members.
As the world is struggling to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, countries including Italy, China, Russia, Britain and the United States are racing to find a vaccine.
According to the website of the World Health Organization, as of Oct. 2, there were 193 COVID-19 candidate vaccines being developed worldwide, and 42 of them were in clinical trials.