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Virus Testing Experiment in Italian Town Appears to Have Halted COVID-19

Newsweek logo Newsweek 3/19/2020 Rosie McCall
a man holding a sign: An Italian soldiers patrols by a check-point at the entrance of the small town of Vo Vecchio, situated in the red zone of the COVID-19 the novel coronavirus outbreak, northern Italy, on February 24, 2020. - Italy, the country with the most confirmed cases in Europe, reports its fifth death and the number of people contracting the disease continues to mount, with 219 people now testing positive. © MARCO SABADIN / AFP/Getty An Italian soldiers patrols by a check-point at the entrance of the small town of Vo Vecchio, situated in the red zone of the COVID-19 the novel coronavirus outbreak, northern Italy, on February 24, 2020. - Italy, the country with the most confirmed cases in Europe, reports its fifth death and the number of people contracting the disease continues to mount, with 219 people now testing positive.

Vò, a small town in northern Italy, could offer clues on to how to deal with the coronavirus after health authorities appear to have stopped the spread of COVID-19, preventing any new infections.

Italy's first death from COVID-19 was recorded in the northern town of Vò, a 3,300-strong community in the Province of Padua 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Venice. Scientists involved say it was an experimental initiative that enabled them to create a full "epidemiological picture" of COVID-19, Financial Times reports.

Since the start of the outbreak, authorities have been testing and retesting each of the town's inhabitants. The tests were performed on people whether or not they were displaying symptoms of the disease. By some reports, between a half and three-quarters of carriers in Vò, were asymptomatic.

Anyone who was found to be infected with the new coronavirus was then put into quarantine—as was everyone they had come into contact with.

Testing began in late February when roughly 3 percent of Vò residents were infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Half were asymptomatic—therefore displayed no symptoms like fever, cough and shortness of breath typical of the disease. A second round of testing days later revealed the infection rate had fallen to 0.3 percent.

"On the second testing that was carried out, we recorded a 90 percent drop in the rate of positive cases. And of all the ones who were positive in the second testing, eight people were asymptomatic," said Professor Andrea Crisanti, an infections expert at Imperial College London on sabbatical at the University of Padua in Italy, Sky reports.

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The success of the policy suggests aggressive testing combined with thorough quarantine of anyone who may be infected may help curb the outbreak in other places.

By testing everyone and not just those who showed symptoms, local authorities were able to quarantine asymptomatic carriers—something that could not be achieved with more typical testing methods used to confirm COVID-19 in people already showing signs of the illness.

"We were able to contain the outbreak here because we identified and eliminated the 'submerged' infections and isolated them," said Crisanti, who was taking part in the experiment during his sabbatical, speaking to Financial Times. "That is what makes the difference."

"It is clear that you cannot test all Italians—but you can test people close to those who are asymptomatic," said Crisanti, Sky reports. "We must use asymptomatic cases as an alarm bell to widen our action."

Meanwhile, a medical device company in the U.S. has received FDA approval and is set to produce a million tests a week.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization urged more countries to test, isolate and trace any new cases of COVID-19 to contain the spread.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • If you feel unwell (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and call local health authorities in advance.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.

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