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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At least 613 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Switzerland, but that number isn’t a reliable measure of the outbreak. The Swiss government is abandoning efforts to keep a precise count of coronavirus cases to focus instead on easing the burden on the healthcare system and protecting the most vulnerable—the elderly and those with preexisting conditions. “The government has decided that they will only test people who are at risk, who have strong symptoms,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the ETH Board. “Young people, who might have weak symptoms, will simply be asked to stay at home to minimize contagion.” The Cantonal Hospital of Lucerne has received a recommendation from the government to limit testing to the most vulnerable or severe cases, said spokesman Markus von Rotz. “Only patients who are hospitalized and health care staff will be tested for coronavirus,” said Claude Kaufmann, a spokesman for Hirslanden Private Hospital Group, which operates 17 hospitals. “Patients with fever and cough must stay at home so that they do not infect anyone.” The Swiss Federal Office of Public Health confirmed that the cases could be far higher than reported and that “people at especially high risk are tested as a priority.“ No test, no infection This raises the question of whether the count reflects the true scale of the outbreak. Many people have been keeping tabs on the daily tally from the federal health office, relying on it to provide a measure of the severity of the situation in Switzerland. The country reported its third coronavirus death Tuesday as the outbreak worsens in neighboring Italy, which has logged over 9,000 infections and 460 deaths. It also marks a change in strategy from the early days of the outbreak, when the government ramped up testing following the first confirmed case on Feb. 25. Back then, even mild cases were being counted and traced in the effort to contain the crisis. The Swiss Federal Council said Friday that tracing the infection would continue “as long as possible.” At the same time, it indicated that protecting people by minimizing contact—at work or social events—was now the bigger priority. Large events have been banned across the country but, unlike in Italy, no blanket travel restrictions have been imposed. And the Swiss border remains open to commuters from Italy. “With the infection rate that this virus has, it will basically cross across the human population,” Hengartner said. “It will become a pandemic. And the challenge for governments is to keep the infection rate low enough that we can always manage the patients that need to get hospitalized.”
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