Three deaths and a giant spike in coronavirus cases are causing mass panic across Italy with the prime minister admitting they have been caught off-guard with the outbreak.
At least 152 people have contracted the virus, health officials announced, with the number expected to rise considerably in the coming days.
"I was surprised by this explosion of cases," Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte told state broadcaster RAI.
The death of the woman in a hospital in the small city of Crema in Lombardy, the northern region that is the centre of Italy's coronavirus scare, followed that of a 77-year-old woman on Saturday and a 78-year-old man on Friday, the first victim of coronavirus in Europe.
Amid a number of restrictive measures implemented on communities, Conte urged people "not to give in to panic and follow the advice of health authorities".
"We should not be afraid because of the rising numbers," he told public radio station Rai Uno, adding in another interview that cases were being discovered "because we are carrying out thousands of checks".
Eleven towns, 10 in Lombardy and one in neighbouring Veneto, are under lockdown, with some 50,000 residents prohibited from leaving.
The outbreak is by far the biggest outside of Asia.
Outbreak sparks panic buying
Regional authorities have ordered gathering spots, such as bars, restaurants and clubs to close.
Schools throughout the affected areas are to remain closed next week.
Later Sunday, an Austrian train from Venice bound for Munich was stopped on the Italian side of the Brenner Pass border crossing with Austria because of two people with fever symptoms on board, the Austrian interior ministry said.
Austria since halted all train traffic to and from Italy, but the ban has since been lifted Sky News reports.
The spread of the virus has disrupted high-profile events including Milan fashion week and the Venice Carnival while Serie A football matches were postponed. Operas have also had to be cancelled at Milan's famed La Scala.
Social media is awash with images of panicked shoppers clearing supermarket shelves as residents fear the outbreak will only worsen.
— emre karaca (@_emrekaraca) February 23, 2020
#coronavirus spreads in Northern Italy, where 132 are now infected, making it the country with the biggest outbreak outside China.
Photo taken by my mom in Milan. She was trying to buy something for dinner. pic.twitter.com/ai7DciytHt
— Albi (@albiretu) February 23, 2020
In Milan, residents rushed to stock up on essentials, while some parents decided to take their children out of the city.
"Today is madness. It feels like we're in Baghdad. We can't restock shelves quick enough," a shop assistant in Milan said.
Images from Venice, the capital of Veneto, show dozens of tourists taking images wearing surgical masks and some even donning protective clothing.
Most of the cases in Italy are in Lombardy, a prosperous region in the country's north, and can be traced back to a 38-year-old man whom authorities have called "patient one."
The man, who is intensive care, dined last month with a friend who had visited China in January. The friend exhibited flu-like symptoms at the time of the dinner, but has since tested negative for the virus, media reports said.
Rapid increase a ‘concern’
Health officials are still puzzled over certain cases with no obvious links with infected persons.
"The rapid increase in reported cases in Italy over the past two days is of concern," the World Health Organization (WHO) spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic said on Sunday.
"What is also worrying is that not all reported cases seem to have clear epidemiological links, such as travel history to China or contact with a confirmed case," he added.
Experts from WHO and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control plan to arrive in Italy on Tuesday, he said.
Conte's government moved Saturday to set up checkpoints in the region affected to ensure that nobody leaves the contaminated zone without special permission to that effect.
Sunday saw police checking all vehicles travelling in and out of the area along Codogno's main highway.
One police officer told AFP that "we're going to quickly enforce a total blockade" and that those who had made it into the area in recent days would be unable to leave.
Conte said on Saturday that residents could face weeks of lockdown, enough time for any potential infection to incubate.
With AAP and AFP
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