CORONAVIRUS CATCHES UP WITH SWITZERLAND

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Switzerland reported its first case of coronavirus on Tuesday and health officials said 70 other people are being tested for the infection.

The Federal Office of Public Health said most of the suspected cases are in Basel and Bern but about half a dozen are in the Ticino region, which borders Italy.

A 70-year-old man from Ticino was diagnosed with the virus on Tuesday, about a week after he returned from a trip to northern Italy, health officials said.

He was tested only on Monday after developing symptoms. The man, who initially remained at home with his family, is now in stable condition in a Ticino hospital. His relatives have shown no symptoms so far and have been instructed to stay home.

Austria and Croatia also recorded their first cases of coronavirus on Tuesday. Globally, the virus has infected about 80,400 people, causing at least 2,710 deaths. In Europe, Italy has been hardest hit, with more than 300 cases and 10 deaths.

Health officials said there is a growing risk of more infections in Switzerland but announced no additional precautions. The government on Monday stepped up information campaigns at the border and at airports as well as tests on those with flu-like symptoms.

Some of Switzerland’s biggest companies are already taking steps to protect their workforce. Pharma giant Roche is recommending that employees who have traveled to affected areas in Italy work from home for two weeks. Elevator manufacturer Schindler Group is also telling employees to work from home if they’re not needed at the office.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization warned countries to be prepared for the worst.

“Countries have to be prepared for the virus literally knocking at their door,” said Christian Lindmeier, a spokesman for the UN agency. “Medical authorities have to be ready, medical staff have to be trained, and there needs to be the protective measures for the population and the medical authorities at the same time.”

Meanwhile, Switzerland’s biggest food retailer and employer has set up a crisis team to deal with potential disruptions to supply amid reports of widespread stockpiling in Italy. The team is working on how to cope with a possible shortage of employees and making sure shelves stayed stocked, said Marcel Schlatter, a spokesman for Migros Group.

Migros, which employs 106,000 people in Switzerland, imports much of its fruit and vegetables during the winter. Coop, its main competitor, also has a pandemic plan in place and is in close contact with authorities, a spokesman said.

The virus’s swift spread in Europe may test the region’s commitment to open borders and travel. Austria on Sunday temporarily halted trains from Italy over concerns that passengers might have the virus. They tested negative and train traffic resumed.

Switzerland may prove critical to efforts to contain the spread of the virus in Europe. It’s a major transit hub and a top tourist destination, sharing a border with five European countries. While the country is not a member of the European Union, it belongs to the border-free Schengen Area and employs many commuters from some of the bloc’s largest economies, including France, Germany, and Italy. About 325,000 people cross the border daily, many to work at big multinational companies such as Novartis and Nestlé.

The European Commission has said that the EU was not yet considering suspending travel within the Schengen Area. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides has called on countries to coordinate measures against the virus.

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