The country’s case total rose to an alarming 24,747 today while 368 extra deaths took the number of victims to 1,809.
Most of the cases came in the Lombardy region, with the towns Bergamo and Brescia especially badly hit, amid fears the virus could wreak even more havoc if there was a mass outbreak in the much larger nearby city Milan.
But down in Rome, Pope Francis defied Italian government advice to stay indoors and walked to church through deserted streets to pray for the end of coronavirus.
The Catholic leader had delivered a blessing from his balcony window above a virtually empty St Peter’s Square, which has been closed to worshippers as part of the country’s sweeping lockdown.
Francis then visited two churches in the Italian capital, first praying in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore before heading down the usually packed Via del Corso.
He also went to the St Marcello al Corso, which poignantly hosts a crucifix carried in a 1522 procession in Rome when the city was stricken with plague.
Flanked by his security detail, the 83-year-old pope, who took a test for coronavirus himself after suffering a cold, decided to walk through the streets ‘as if on a pilgrimage,’ Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said.
Italy’s crisis is so severe that in some badly hit areas, the old or those with underlying health conditions could be effectively left to die so younger patients more likely to survive can be treated.
The Italian College of Anesthesia, Analgesia, Resuscitation and Intensive Care, this week told doctors how to deploy scarce resources when the need for them is outstripped by the demand of critically ill patients.
They state that priority should be given to those who have, first, “greater likelihood of survival and, second, who have more potential years of life”.
As a result, patients with underlying conditions and elderly patients, who are deemed to stand less chance of surviving the virus, may be essentially sacrificed.
There are growing concerns 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.