The coronavirus in Italy has been causing major concerns among travelers. But is is really unsafe to travel to Italy now?
Is Rome all shut down because of coronavirus in Italy? Will you be able to visit the Colosseum, the Sistine Chapel or St. Peter’s Basilica if you go? Will restaurants be open? Does public transportation work?
If you follow this blog regularly, you will know that I live in Sardinia and regularly visit Rome and Lazio to see family (my dad is from there) – it’s a quick flight for me. As a local and as a fellow traveler, I think it is only fair that I try to answer the many questions that I see popping up in the travelers community, Facebook groups, etc. about the outbreak of coronavirus in Italy.
You can only imagine how frustrating it is to see the amount of misinformation that circulates at the moment, the panic that sensationalist media spread, while the reality of things is that – with the obvious exception of a few towns that are isolated – coronavirus in Italy is no bigger an issue than anywhere else in the world.
In this post, I will try to give you as much detailed information as possible about the situation in Italy. I will update this post daily as things develop. Keep in mind I am not a virologist, a public health expert or a doctor. But I am a trained researcher, I have a PhD so I know where to look for reliable sources of information – which I will be sharing here. And, most importantly, I am also a resident: I can tell you how things really are here.
Before addressing the current situation in Italy, let me clarify a few things about coronavirus.
What Is Coronavirus And What Are The Risks Associated With It?
There has been much talk about coronavirus in the media in the last couple of months, yet, I still come across people that seem to be almost completely oblivious to the threats it poses, how it is transmitted and what should be done to prevent it.
It was only 3 days ago that someone suggested to me that coronavirus is due to the consumption of raw meat and bats and that the best way to fight it is to only eat hot, well cooked food and to drink hot tea. I wish it were that easy!
Now, if you are not familiar with what coronavirus is and how it is transmitted, or if you still have doubts, do refer to this page by the World Health Organization (WHO) about the coronavirus and COVID-19. It really is the one source of information you should be reading, as nobody better than those experts know what is going on and how to address the issue.
The first cases of coronavirus – also known as COVID-19 – were reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 – though a research conducted by Italian researchers working at Università Statale di Milano and already submitted to the WHO suggests that the virus has been circulating since mid-October 2019 (source).
For most people infected, coronavirus causes flu-like symptoms. For some, it causes severe respiratory issues – pneumonia that may require ventilation and intensive care. Most of those testing positive to the virus show no symptoms at all – which actually causes even more problems because people continue going about their daily business, spreading the virus unknowingly and to people who may actually be affected.
Finally, in the worst case scenario, the virus causes death. Around 2% of patients who catch coronavirus, unfortunately, do not make it. These are usually people with a severely compromised immune system and with other underlying serious illnesses. But this is not necessarily the case – please keep this in mind. Patient 1 in Italy is a very fit 38-year old currently in stable but critical conditions at the hospital.
What truly is worrying about the coronavirus is the contagion rate: it spreads way more quickly than SARS, regular flu and other viruses.
Quarantine in the affected Chinese cities was put in place, but unfortunately not before the virus could escape and make its way throughout the world. As attested by The New England Journal of Medicine, the first case of coronavirus in Europe was recorded in Germany, where a man showed symptoms after a series of meetings with a Chinese business partner held in Munich on January 20th and 21st and. The Chinese business person tested positive to the coronavirus on January 26th; the German man and a few more of his colleagues subsequently tested positive to coronavirus.
Most likely, that’s how the virus made its way to Northern Italy where the worst outbreak outside of Asia has been recorded.
This map – constantly updated – gives you an idea of which countries have been affected by the virus so far. This one will give you an account of coronavirus in Italy – with data by region. But, how accurate can it be?
First of all, keep in mind that the count of infected people and deaths is given per country – not per region and not even per city. Saying that a certain number has died in the US doesn’t mean that the entire country is affected. And sure enough, coronavirus in Italy is not affecting the entire country in the same way. In fact, it is almost entirely contained to certain towns of north of Italy (more about that later).
To give you an example, Lombardy is the main cluster of the virus in Italy but Milan, the main city, is not affected.
For a regularly updated recollection of the status of things in Milan, check out this post by The Crowded Planet.
Coronavirus In Italy
The first cases of coronavirus in Italy were reported at the end of January, when an elderly Chinese couple was hospitalized at Spallanzani Hospital in Rome. This couple has since recovered and has been moved to a normal ward (source).
On February 20th, a 38 year-old man tested positive in Codogno, a small town at about 50 km from Milan. He reported severe respiratory problems. Soon after that, a new case was found near Padova, in the region of Veneto. This time a 78 year-old man who sadly passed away a few days later.
Measures to contain the virus were put in place immediately, and the towns affected were immediately quarantined to avoid the virus from spreading any further.
Since February 23rd, 11 towns (10 in the region of Lombardy and one in the region of Veneto) have been isolated and are under strict surveillance, with people unable to enter or exit and the military monitoring the area.
On 7 March 2020 the Italian government, in an effort to contain coronavirus in Italy, announced the complete closure of Lombardy and has enlarged the red alert zone to 11 more provinces which include across the regions of Piedmont and Emilia Romagna and which include the cities of Modena, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio Emilia, Rimini, Pesaro and Urbino, Venezia, Padova, Treviso, Asti and Alessandria. The closure is meant to stay in place until 3 April 2020.
Measures to contain the virus in the red alert zone include the closure of gyms, swimming pools, spas, museums, cultural associations, ski stations.
Measures to contain the outbreak of coronavirus in Italy include the closure or all national museums (that also includes the Colosseum), places of worship (including for funerals and wedding celebrations), pubs, cinemas and theaters as well as clubs. This measure is in place throughout the country and until 3 April.
Any other public event where crowds may assemble and there won’t be the chance of respecting a minimum distance of one meter among people have all been suspended.
March 10 and onwards important updates
As of March 10 2020, until April 3, the entire country is on lockdown. Italy has now been declared a red alert zone and people can only move from one town to another for proven and urgent medical or work reasons. Italians – and anybody currently in Italy – are required to stay at home and only go out for important necessities ie buying groceries.
Public gatherings of any sort are forbidden. People are encouraged to work from home whenever they can.
As of March 12, bars, restaurants, pubs, beauty centers, hair dressers, and any other non-essential shops remain close. Grocery stores and pharmacies will remain open as usual and there is no need to rush to get food. Delivery places will continue to work.
Foreigners can still come to Italy – whether this is appropriate or not is another question, and there may be further issues once you go back to your own country.
All people currently in Italy for tourism reason are required limit their movements as much as possible. They can obviously use transportation to get to airports, stations, etc in order to return to their home country. They are invited to verify their flight status before getting to the airport.
As of March 15, only 18 airports in Italy remain operative – in Lazio, that will be Rome Fiumicino, and in Sardinia it’s Cagliari. They are only meant to be used for official flights and for important matters and a letter has to be sent to the local government for travel approval.
Make sure to read my posts “Please Stop Traveling. At Least For A While” and “19 Productive Things To Do At Home When You Can’t Travel.”
Why have so many people tested positive to coronavirus In Italy?
Good question! The simple answer is this: the more you test, the more you discover cases. And this is what Italy has been doing. More than 109000 people have been tested in Italy since the coronavirus outbreak and by 14 March (source). As of 28 February South Korea had tested more than 65000 (hence the presence of more cases there as well).
The same can’t be said of other countries – as of March 4, 2020 only 459 tests had been run in the United States, and one person in California was refused the test by the CDC (the patient later turned out to be COVID-19 positive). By March 14, the number of tests administered in the US were 20795 and on March 16, 2020 3770 people tested positive.
As of a week ago, in Africa tests were simply not being administered.
Testing in Italy is free. Healthcare is free – we don’t pay for doctors, Emergency Room or intensive care – regardless of our social or legal status, nationality, race. Not even migrants or tourists have to pay a penny to receive assistance.
There are roughly 60 million people living in Italy. Of these, 23% are over 65 years-old (source), making Italy the second oldest country in the world after Japan. Which explains the high mortality rate from coronavirus in Italy.
As of 2 April 2020, 115242 have tested positive to coronavirus in Italy; 18278 have fully recovered and 13915 passed away as a consequence (most aged between 63 and 95 and all of them with previous serious illnesses). At the moment, there are 83049 people who are positive to coronavirus in Italy. Most deaths and cases are reported in the north of Italy, in the region of Lombardia.
Italy seems to have the highest mortality rate linked to the virus. With regards to that Massimo Galli, head of the infectious disease unit at Sacco Hospital in Milan, capital of Lombardy (the worst hit region in the country), explained that in the last few weeks Italy has only been testing people with severe symptoms in area where the epidemic has been recorded with more intensity than others. This means that the numbers of people infected and of those who died as a result is a statistical distortion (more about this issue here).
Virologists and health experts are not making predictions as to what will happen with the virus. At the moment, we don’t know if and for how long the cases will continue increasing and we don’t know how long it will take to find a cure and a vaccine – it was little over a month ago that the virus was finally isolated by 3 Italian researchers.
The good news is that the epidemic seems to have slowed down in China and more and more people are recovering every day. And as of March 22 Italy seems to have passed the peak and the curve of the infection is finally flattening.
Coronavirus In Rome And In Sardinia – As Of 2 April 2020
Many of you visit my blog to search information about Rome, so it is fair to update you on the situation in these two places.
Coronavirus in Rome
As of April 1, there are 3433 recorded coronavirus cases in Lazio, the region of which Rome is the main city. Among them there is a family in Fiumicino; a woman who had recently visited northern Italy, her husband and daughter (all of them currently hospitalized); and a policeman who also had connection to northern Italy together with his immediate family.
Coronavirus in Sardinia
The first case of coronavirus in Sardinia was reported on 2 March. The patient – a 42 year-old man who attended a fair in northern Italy is currently hospitalized and his family, friends and relations are currently quarantined. He sadly passed away on the morning of March 15, 2020. So far, there are 794 cases of coronavirus in Sardinia.
Life in Sardinia, including Cagliari, is very limited. Attractions throughout town and the rest of the region are closed until 13 April following the national decree; schools and universities are closed until further notice; sport events such as the America Cup have been cancelled; fitness centers and pools will remain close until April 13; restaurants, bars, pubs and shops are closed; markets are open and food is available everywhere; public transportation works as usual and hand sanitizer is abundantly available in all pharmacies.
A charity run with more than 17000 participants scheduled for 8 March has been postponed to June. Furthermore, the government of Sardinia hasn’t yet solved the issue of flight connections to Italy from 17 April onwards (this is a different story, though).
We can only leave the house for urgent reasons (ie work unless we working from home, obviously); to go buy food (and only one member per household) and other urgent necessities such as taking care of elderly family members, walking the dog, taking the dog to the vet, and so on. We can’t move from one town to another freely. But at least we have all we need in terms of food and care, and the government has passed measures to support those who have lost their job and whose businesses had a halt following the lockdown.
On 8 March 2020 the Sardinian Government passed a decree demanding anybody arriving in Sardinia from the quarantined zones to report itself to the authorities and to put themselves in isolation for a period of 2 weeks.
On 9 March Alitalia announced that there will only be one daily flight connecting Cagliari and Alghero to Milan Linate airport. Flights from Milan Linate to all destinations have been drastically reduced. Ryanair has significantly reduced its domestic flight offer from the affected area, which implies that there will be fewer connections from Bergamo, Malpensa, Venice, Treviso, Rimini and Parma from 12 March until 8 April.
On 9 March a medical team of the University of Cagliari announced that it has isolated the genetic sequence of the virus.
Travel Restrictions For People Traveling To And From Italy
In order to contain the spreading of coronavirus, a number of countries have restricted travel to and from Italy. The full list can be found here. On 3 March China announced that travelers arriving from Italy will be quarantined.
The United States Center for Disease Control has raised the travel advisory to Italy to a level 3, which means avoid any unnecessary travel, and to level 4 for red alert zones (that is, the areas currently in quarantine).
Delta and American Airlines have announced that for the time being they will stop flying into Milan Malpensa airport – this means that you can still travel to Rome and – from there – to Sardinia. All travelers flying to the US will have their temperature measures and if it is higher than 37.5 degrees Celsius (99.5 Farenheit) they won’t be allowed to board.
IMPORTANT UPDATE: As of 10 March the entire country is on lockdown. All of Italy is a red alert zone and people can only move from one town to another for proven and urgent medical or work reasons.
Should You Cancel Your Trip To Italy Because Of Coronavirus?
It’s not like you have much of a choice here. Italy is on full lockdown until April 3, 2020, and then we will see if this lockdown will go on. You will have to wait and see to find out whether after that date travel will be allowed again – but at the moment most countries are going under the same restrictive measures to put an end to the pandemic.
In the vast majority of cases, unless you have added a “cancel for any reason” package to your travel insurance, insurance companies will refuse to refund you for a trip cancellation. And on top of this the company you work for may force you to stay home, unpaid, in quarantine upon your return – so much for workers’ right to time off sick or for vacation time (but this is a different story).
The entire tourism industry is suffering from the impact of the coronavirus in Italy. Including this very blog you are reading. The economic losses are enormous – some places have recorded more than 80% cancellation. Italy is a country that heavily relies on tourism and surely you can imagine that the impact in the tourism industry is reflecting itself in the entire economic life of the country.
If you do decide to come, you would be showing your moral and financial support to a country that needs it and that deserves it. Italy is one of the most welcoming countries to tourists, and one of the best prepared ones in this sense.
Honestly though, now it is not a good time to come. No matter what your financial losses may be. Now it is time to respect Italy’s effort in its fight against coronavirus. But perhaps you can help our economy by purchasing products that are made in Italy – from food to wine to any other goods that Italy is famous for.
The same can be said about the rest of Europe, actually – see for example this post about Croatia.
Safety measures at Rome and Cagliari airports
Since the outbreak of coronavirus, Italy has been implementing some safety measures at all airports. All passengers have their body temperature taken, a screening that has been in place since the end of January. Italy has cancelled all flights from China since the end of January – one of the first countries to do so in the European Union.
Precautions you should be adopting
To prevent the spreading of coronavirus in Italy and anywhere else in the world, there are some precautions you can adopt. Here they are:
- Regularly wash your hands thoroughly – health care practitioners recommend the use of soap and a minimum of 40 seconds.
- If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer.
- Do not touch your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. That includes picking your nose. By all means do not bite your nails.
- Sneeze or cough into a tissue and throw it away immediately afterwards. If you don’t have one, cough or sneeze it into your elbow.
- Avoid quarantine towns in Lombardy and Veneto (see the list provided above, which I will be updating if more places are included, and keep in mind they are a flight away from Sardinia and hundreds of km away from Rome).
- Avoid things such as hugging and kissing and keep a distance of one meter between yourself and others when in public spaces.
- Stay at home if you are over 75 years of age.
- Regularly check travel restrictions from your country’s authorities – some authorities such as the CDC are suggesting you postpone your trip to Italy but things may change as the situation evolve.
- Talk to your doctor if you have any medical condition that may put you in the risk-group.
- Stay at home if you have a fever.
- The numbers to call if you think you are showing symptoms of coronavirus in Italy is 1500, 112 or 118. There will be English speaking operators.
- Please do not go to the Emergency Room or the hospital to avoid spreading the virus further.
- Remember that health care in Italy is free and available to all – residents, travelers, migrants regardless of their status.
- Try to follow local media for updates. Il Fatto Quotidiano is one of the most authoritative Italian newspapers. It’s in Italian but you can use Google Translate to make sense of what it says.
- Enroll in government programs for travelers so that your government can easily locate you in case of an emergency. For the US program, click here.
Conclusion On The Outbreak Of Coronavirus In Italy
One thing I’d like to add is that the media – Italian and international – have already caused way too much damage with sensationalist news that escalated to an alarm that went way out of proportion.
It is frustrating to see Italy and Italians singled out as the carrier of the virus – like the CNN did in this map that shows how many cases of coronavirus have been linked to Italy, omitting to say that the virus started in China and it first appeared in Europe in Germany.
It is sad, because in reality the country is adopting all sorts of emergency measures in place to prevent the spreading and to cure the people who have been affected – even foreigners (I wonder if other countries would do the same?). Italy is doing things by the book and reacting promptly. Please grant us that.
It is aggravating to see countries such as France throwing grotesque jokes – such as the launch of a new coronavirus pizza, which we in Italy would not dare eating because hey, we do like good pizza and good food. The very same France that in a time of emergency like this doesn’t stop a public gathering of thousands of people dressed as smurfs (though finally, as of 16 March, public schools will be closed there too).
The worst comment though has to be that made by a certain Christian Jessen, a British doctor (supposedly) and TV personality (he’s the anchor man of Embarrassing Bodies, a show that portrays GPs wandering around the country trying to convince people to see a doctor – yes, really!). In this mayhem, he publicly said that although it may sound “a bit racist” he believes that coronavirus in Italy is being used as an excuse for a long siesta. One can only hope that this kind of people get banned from the medic’s profession, from TV and from public life in general.
It honestly is a hard time for us in Italy. We are a beautiful country, we are a wonderful, welcoming people. We deserve better than this. We deserve your support and more than anything else we deserve the same respect we always show other countries.
Please continue to visit us – once things finally calm down. Because they will.