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Italy Considers Shutting Down Schools, Universities To Combat Spread Of COVID-19

NOEL KING, HOST:

Authorities in Italy are considering shutting down every single school and university in the country to stop COVID-19 from spreading. Italy was one of the first countries outside of China to see people infected, and cases around the world have now been traced back to Italy. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli is on the line from Rome.

Hi, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Hi there.

KING: So the Italian government has got some new numbers on infections and deaths. Is that right?

POGGIOLI: Well, the latest figures are from the Civil Protection Agency last night - 2,502 total cases and 79 deaths, and most of them are elderly people with preexisting health issues. And the great majority are from the epicenter of the outbreak, which is in Lombardy, where there's 10 towns with a population of 50,000 that have been total lockdown for nearly two weeks.

Now, it's important to note that Italy also has carried out a very, very large number of tests - as of last night, almost 26,000. And that may be one reason why the numbers of infections are very high. And it's also important to say that Italy has both public and private health care, which means that everyone is being taken care of.

KING: OK. Well, that's some good news. These reports that authorities are considering shutting down all the schools and universities, that sounds quite serious. How real is it? And are they considering other measures as well in terms of quarantines, things like that?

POGGIOLI: Yeah. We understand that the government is about to make the announcement that all schools, as you said, and universities will be shut down through March 15. Then we're also expecting them to announce that public gatherings will be banned nationwide. Now, for soccer, which is Italy's secular religion, that means that matches for the next month would be held in empty stadiums. Now, the delay in - we understand, perhaps, that the reason we're getting this delay in the announcement is because Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is trying to get full bipartisan - multipartisan, let's say - support for these measures to tackle the national emergency.

The opposition populist hard-right League, which governs much of the North, has tried to exploit the virus crisis for its own political ends, and this has created a lot of conflicting directives from different authorities. And it's also created a lot of confusion and panic among the population inside and outside of Italy. Now, for example, I'm here in Rome, where there are very few COVID-19 cases, but the city has really become a ghost town.

KING: Wow.

POGGIOLI: Tourists have disappeared. Hotel cancellations are - I've read reports that they're up to 70%. This is really going to be very devastating for the country's economy. And the government has already announced several measures, including tax breaks, to help businesses and hopefully avert a full recession.

KING: Let me ask you lastly about Italy's nonsecular religion. Last week at mass, the pope was hoarse. He was seen blowing his nose. What is the Vatican saying about his health?

POGGIOLI: Well, we all saw the pope in the Sunday appearance coughing, and he himself announced that his cold prevented him from attending a Lenten retreat. Then yesterday, a Rome paper wrote, without quoting a source, that Francis has undergone a test. You know, the Vatican is reticent. They would not say one way or the other, neither a denial nor a confirmation, which is typical Vaticanese (ph).

KING: Oh, OK. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Italy.

Thank you so much, Sylvia.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.