New coronavirus infections spiked dramatically across Europe on Sunday, with Italy reporting hundreds of new cases and five more deaths. The number of confirmed cases also jumped in France, Germany and the UK, and the Czech Republic reported its first case.
As the disease continued its rapid spread and governments introduced emergency measures to halt the progress of the escalating epidemic, outbreaks worsened in Iran and South Korea. The US also reported two new infections, one in Chicago and another in Rhode Island, marking the eastern state’s first case.
Italy said confirmed infections had risen 40% in 24 hours to 1,576, with the death toll now at 34. In Germany the number of people infected had almost doubled to 129 on Sunday, while France’s total stood at 100 – up from 38 on Friday – nine of them in a serious condition.
Iran meanwhile raised its death toll from 43 to 54 as its number of confirmed infections rose by more than half to 978, amid continuing concerns that official figures still do not reflect the full scale of the outbreak there.
Iran’s health ministry spokesman, Kianoush Jahanpour, said new cases confirmed in a number of cities, including Mashhad, home to Iran’s most important Shia shrine, which has remained open despite calls to close.
The escalating figures came as the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned individuals in higher-risk groups to avoid crowds and other places of elevated infection risk.
He tweeted: “If you are 60+, or have an underlying condition like cardiovascular disease, a respiratory condition or diabetes, you have a higher risk of developing severe #COVID19. Try to avoid crowded areas, or places where you might interact with people who are sick.”
And among a growing number of sites and events to fall victim to coronavirus fears was the Louvre museum in Paris, which shut on Sunday afternoon, reportedly after about 300 staff met in the morning and voted “almost unanimously” not to open. Louvre management later confirmed the museum was closed for the entire day, and said it would refund ticketholders.
Both France and Switzerland, which banned mass gatherings – have cautioned citizens not use “la bise” – known to Britons as the “kissy kissy” greeting – for fear of spreading the virus.
The Iranian figures represent 11 more deaths than reported on Saturday and 385 new cases of infections. While the new numbers have brought down the percentage of deaths to infections to about 5.5%, that is still much higher than other countries, suggesting the number of infections in Iran may be far higher.
Amid plans announced by the Revolutionary Guards to install mobile hospitals in the cities of Qom and Rasht, Iran’s state broadcaster said all flights to and from Rasht, the capital of northern Gilan province, had been suspended.
“We have set up centres across the country to help people to tackle the virus,” an unnamed Revolutionary Guards commander told a televised news conference on Sunday. “We need national cooperation to tackle this crisis. People should follow our health officials’ advice.”
After days of assurances that the virus was largely under control, officials recently acknowledged Iran was preparing for the possibility of tens of thousands of people getting tested for the disease.
The figures from Iran, which along with China, South Korea and Italy has suffered the most serious outbreaks, came at the same time as an avalanche of worsening indicators outside China, where reported cases had appeared to be declining.
However, despite recent indications that China, the worst affected country so far, might be turning a corner, on Sunday it reported the sharpest increase in new infections in a week with 573 additional cases and 35 deaths.
The deaths represented a drop from the previous day’s toll of 47. China has recorded a total of 2,870 deaths from 79,824 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei.
In Italy, a top health official has warned of a “tsunami” effect on its hospital system after confirmed cases there rose to almost 1,700 including 34 deaths, a warning that has been increasingly echoed in other European capitals.
“The situation is, frankly, an emergency from the point of view of health system organisation,” Massimo Galli, a professor and director of infectious diseases at Milan’s Sacco hospital, told Corriere della Sera on Sunday.
His warning came as the US on Sunday urged Americans not to travel to the two Italian regions hardest hit by the new virus, raising the level of warning for the Lombardy and Veneto regions to the highest level.
“It is the equivalent of a tsunami for the number of patients with major diseases being hospitalised all together,” said Galli. “For example, on Friday, before the new wave of cases arrived in Lombardy, there were 85 beds occupied by patients intubated for Covid-19 – that’s a significant share of those available.”
The pattern of rapid spread was also visible in South Korea, which reported a further 586 infections, taking the country’s tally to 3,736 cases, with a death toll of 18.
In a sign of the wider social impact of the outbreak, it was disclosed that the leader of a religious sect in South Korea could face a homicide investigation over some of the coronavirus deaths. The city government of the capital, Seoul, has asked prosecutors to charge Lee Man-hee, the founder of the Shincheonji church, and 11 others who are accused of hiding the names of some members as officials tried to track patients before the virus spread.
That coincided with the decision by South Korea’s Catholic church to halt masses at more than 1,700 locations nationwide for the first time in its 236-year history. Buddhist temples also called off events, while major Christian churches held online services.
In France, meanwhile, travellers were advised to avoid journeys abroad outside the EU unless strictly necessary. The country has banned gatherings of more than 5,000 people in confined spaces and outside demonstrations in areas where the virus has been reported. Sunday’s Paris half-marathon has been cancelled, while priests in some dioceses, including Paris, have been instructed not to put the host into communicants’ mouths but into their hands instead.
Among the new contaminations were three health workers at a Paris hospital and a firefighter in Rennes. In the Haute-Savoie region, where there has been a cluster of cases thought to have originated from a person who had returned from northern Italy, the mayor of La Balme-de-Sillingy, François Daviet, announced he had tested positive.
New cases also included two children aged one year and five years who have been hospitalised in Strasbourg along with their 27-year-old mother who also tested positive. Their condition has been described as not worrying.
Elsewhere, the US, Australia and Thailand have reported their first deaths, while two frontline doctors in China died and more countries banned large gatherings and imposed travel restrictions.
A 35-year-old male retail worker in Thailand died from Covid-19, according to the country’s department of disease control on Sunday. The man had also tested positive for dengue fever. In Australia, a 78-year-old man who was on the Diamond Princess cruise ship died in a hospital in Western Australia. His wife has also contracted the virus.
Fears were mounting in the US, where the governor of Washington declared a state of emergency after a man died there, the country’s first reported death. More than 50 people in a nursing facility in the state are ill and being tested for the virus. Governor Jay Inslee directed state agencies to use all resources necessary to prepare for and respond to the outbreak. The declaration also allows the use of the Washington national guard if necessary.
The Israeli national airline, El Al, is reportedly considering firing 1,000 out of its total workforce of about 6,000 because of losses linked to the coronavirus outbreak. A company spokesman confirmed the plan to AFP but would not give further details.