MILAN, March 15 (Reuters) - Italy recorded 368 more deaths from the coronavirus outbreak on Sunday, its biggest one day rise, amid growing concern about the ability of its strained health system to cope with the relentless increase in new cases.
While the virus has begun spreading rapidly across Europe, Italy remains the second most heavily affected country in the world after China, where the illness first emerged, and the outbreak has shown no signs of slowing.
The government is working urgently on procuring more protective equipment, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said, adding there was maximum attention on helping Lombardy, the northern region where the virus emerged just over three weeks ago.
"Our priority is to keep doctors, nurses and all our health personnel safe," Conte said in a statement a week after his government imposed a virtual lockdown across the country in a bid to contain the spread of the virus.
His government has pledged a package of measures to support businesses and families amid fears of a serious economic crisis. The measures, originally due over the weekend, are now expected after a cabinet meeting on Monday.
With 24,747 cases and 1,809 deaths by Sunday - a rise of 368 or 25% in the death toll in just 24 hours - Italy's experience has offered an alarming example for other European countries which have begun seeing sharp rises in cases over recent days.
Lombardy, the heavily populated area around the financial capital Milan, has been the worst-affected region with 1,218 deaths. Of those, 252 were recorded in the last 24 hours.
Italy has the most elderly population in Europe, with almost a quarter aged 65 and over, rendering it especially vulnerable to a disease that has predominantly killed older people.
The head of the civil protection authority, Angelo Borelli, said that Lombardy had been able to transfer 40 patients to other regions and said he was so far unaware of any cases of patients dying because of a lack of intensive care facilities.
But the health systems in Lombardy and in other regions such as Emilia Romagna and Veneto at the epicentre of the Italian outbreak have been pushed to their limits.
"The numbers have continued to grow. We're close to the moment where we will have no more intensive care beds," Lombardy governor Attilio Fontana told SkyTG24 television.
PUSHED TO THE LIMITS
Economy Minister Roberto Gualtieri confirmed the government's planned economic support package would total some 25 billion euros ($27.94 billion) and said it would ensure companies and workers were helped through the crisis.
He said the package would provide extra funding for the health system as well as a mix of measures to help companies and households including freezing tax and loan payments and boosting unemployment benefits to ensure no jobs were lost.
"We had to give a strong and immediate response to both the public health crisis and the economic crisis," he told RAI state television. "No one will lose their job because of the coronavirus and everybody should be able to support themselves during this phase of the emergency."
Italy was the first government in Europe to impose country-wide restrictions to try to control the spread of the virus, closing schools, shops and sporting events and ordering people to stay in their homes for all but essential travel.
Most cases in Lombardy have been in small towns in areas like Bergamo and Brescia, but there have been fears of a major spread into Milan itself, which could overwhelm hospitals.
"The big challenge will be to see how far we can succeed in keeping Milan, the metropolitan area, away from a mass phenomenon with the disease," said Massimo Galli, head of the infectious diseases unit at the city's Sacco hospital.
Authorities have been working to set up hundreds of intensive care beds in a specially created facility in the Fiera Milano exhibition centre but are still waiting for sufficient respirators and qualified personnel.
Behind the concern for the north, there was also a looming worry over the much less well-equipped south, where tens of thousands of people have arrived from the affected regions.
Nello Musumeci, president of the Sicily region, said at least 31,000 people had arrived from northern and central areas in the past 10 to 12 days and registered with authorities but the real number was much higher.
"How many other thousands have entered without showing the same sense of responsibility?" he told RAI state television, adding that the army might have to be deployed to control arrivals. ($1 = 0.9033 euros)