Austria and Croatia confirmed their first cases of the COVID-19 on Tuesday as European countries scrambled to respond to a rapidly-expanding threat from the new coronavirus spreading from Italy.
Clusters of the illness continued to balloon outside mainland China, fueling worldwide worries that were reflected in weak financial markets.
On the Spanish holiday island of Tenerife, 1,000 tourists were being prevented from leaving a hotel where an Italian man had symptoms of the virus while a school in Cheshire, England closed after some pupils returned from a ski trip to northern Italy.
Austrian public broadcaster ORF quoted authorities in Tyrol saying one of two confirmed cases involved a person from northern Italy. Both are being isolated at an Innsbruck hospital.
The Croatian case is a man who had traveled to Turin.
It comes after the WHO urged countries to act “to prevent a potential pandemic.”
Italy is trying to deal with the biggest cluster of infections in any country outside of Asia, with 229 cases confirmed so far. It was the first EU member state to see citizens die from the virus.
The EU has pledged €230 million to fight the outbreak in Italy and elsewhere but said it would not yet impose restrictions on travel or trade.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom told reporters in Geneva on Monday that the time was “not right” to declare COVID-19 a pandemic, and that it was already a public health emergency — the highest level of alarm.
“Using the word pandemic now does not fit the facts,” he said, “but it certainly causes panic. Using the word won’t prevent a single infection or save a single life.”
The WHO has no evidence of “uncontained global spread,” he said, but COVID-19 “absolutely” has the potential to become a pandemic.
Italy grapples with the spread of COVID-19
Italy has locked down at least ten towns in the northern state of Lombardy and the epicenter of the Veneto cluster, Vo’Euganeo.
Police are manning checkpoints around quarantined towns, and police also stepped in to regulate customer queues at some supermarkets, as people stockpiled food in the wake of the lockdown order.
Sicily reported a new coronavirus case on Tuesday — a woman on holiday the north. She and her husband were put in isolation.
Italy’s Civil Protection chief Angelo Borrelli urged Italians to abide by the containment measures for the two week quarantine period.
“If in a certain area at first there was a recommendation and then an obligation to stay put, we are respecting that and it will be good for us and good for others,”said Borrelli.
Many of the new cases represented the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion.
Some of the cases came at the same hospital in Codogno, one of the Lombardy towns now on lockdown.
The mayor of Codogno issued a decree ordering the closure of all restaurants, coffee bars, schools and public gathering spots such as discos and gyms. The health ministry advised area residents to stay home as a precaution.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called for a meeting Tuesday of all Italian government ministers and regional governors to come up with a coordinated plan for coping with the spread of the new coronavirus across the country.
He acknowledged that regions have been handling the emergency situation with different measures creating “confusion” and noted that on Tuesday they hope to come up with a coordinated protocol for the country.