Outbreak of coronavirus in northern Italy worsens with officials announcing 17 confirmed cases in the wealthy region of Lombardy and adjacent Veneto area.

Personnel carry new beds inside the hospital of Codogno, near Lodi in Northern Italy, Friday, February. 21, 2020.
Personnel carry new beds inside the hospital of Codogno, near Lodi in Northern Italy, Friday, February. 21, 2020. (AP)

Italian authorities on Friday said the number of people infected with the new virus from China has more than quadrupled due to an emerging cluster of cases in the country's north. 

Many of the new cases represented the first infections in Italy acquired through secondary contagion and brought the country's total to 17. 

The first to fall ill in northern Italy met with someone who had returned from China on January 21 without presenting any symptoms of the new virus, health authorities said.

The 38-year-old Italian man is hospitalised in critical condition. The man's wife and a friend of his also tested positive for the virus. 

Three patients at the hospital where he went with flu-like symptoms a few days ago also have infections. Five nurses and doctors contracted the virus as well. 

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said Italy is now seeing the same sort of "cluster" of cases that Germany and France have seen.

Separately, ANSA news agency said two people had been diagnosed as suffering from the highly contagious illness in Veneto, although it was not immediately clear if the cases were connected.

'Self-isolation' ordered

Meanwhile, 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. 

Local officials in another town, Casalpusterlengo, ordered local schools closed through Tuesday. A third town, Castiglione d'Adda, said its libraries, public offices, gyms, and garbage depots would be closed as a health precaution.

"In other parts of the world, and also in China, it has been demonstrated that this system [of self-isolation] helps in a substantial way to block the spread," Lombardy regional President Attilio Fontana said. 

"But we must not let ourselves be overcome by panic."

The Codogno hospital closed its emergency room, and staff were seen wearing masks as movers brought in new beds and furniture as the quarantine got under way. 

The manager who travelled to China remains asymptomatic but was put into isolation at another hospital, Gallera said. 

Difficult to find face masks

Rome's infectious disease hospital is currently caring for three other people who were infected, including a Chinese couple from hard-hit Wuhan and an Italian who is now testing "persistently negative" for the virus after two weeks of anti-viral treatment.

Despite the calls for safeguards, Italians were having a hard time finding protective face masks. A sampling of Milan pharmacies reported selling out out weeks ago, as did a pharmacist in Codogno.

Since December, the SARS-like virus has killed more than 2,200 people in China, the epidemic's epicentre.

Elsewhere in the world, it has killed over a dozen people and spread across some 27 countries. 

Source: AP