UPDATE 1-Italy suffers setback to hopes its coronavirus epidemic might be in retreat
(Recasts, updates death tally with latest figures)
ROME, March 26 (Reuters) - Hopes that Italy's coronavirus epidemic might be in retreat suffered a setback on Thursday when data showed that both the number of new cases and deaths had ticked higher, underscoring how hard it is to halt the disease.
Officials said 712 people died of the illness in the last 24 hours, pushing the total tally to 8,215, well over double that seen in anywhere else in the world, while new infections rose by 6,153 to 80,539.
The number of cases is nudging close to the more than 81,000 infections recorded in China where the pandemic began.
The relentless rise in Italy is despite stringent lockdown measures introduced progressively since Feb. 23 to try to stop the spread, which authorities had hoped would be having more of an effect by now.
There had been slight declines in both new cases and deaths earlier this week, but the northern region of Lombardy, the epicenter of the outbreak, saw its numbers climb on Thursday.
"I do not know if we have hit the peak or if we have missed something ... all I can say is that I am worried," Lombardy governor Attilio Fontana told reporters, adding that the situation would soon become clearer.
"I think that in two or three days we will understand if the measures we have taken are working," he said.
However, he warned that when new cases finally receded, the government would not necessarily be able to relax the lockdown, which is due to be lifted on April 3.
"Even if the number of cases declines, I think we will have to carry on with (the restrictions) until we are quite certain that this contagion has been stopped."
The situation appeared particularly worrying in Lombardy's capital Milan, which is also Italy's financial hub, where new infections jumped by more than 800 to almost 7,000.
Only the neighboring provinces of Bergamo and Brescia have a higher number of cases.
Highlighting the scale of the drama, Bergamo said that over the last 10 years it had recorded on average 45 deaths a week. This ticked up to 64 at the end of February and then soared, hitting a peak of 313 deaths between March 15-21.
ANXIETY IN THE SOUTH
The disease has also taken a heavy toll amongst medical workers, with the national federation of doctors and surgeons saying on Thursday that 40 doctors had so far died, many of them general practitioners in northern towns and cities.
Italy's less developed south is growing increasingly anxious as it sees its own numbers push up, with several regions reporting growth rates in new cases that are above the national average.
In an open letter to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the head of the Campania region, which is centered on Naples, warned of impending disaster.
"At this point there is the real prospect that Lombardy's tragedy is about to become the south's tragedy," Vincenzo De Luca wrote. "We are on the cusp of a major expansion of infections that we might not be able to manage." (Additional reporting by Angelo Amante in Rome and Elvira Pollina in Milan Editing by Frances Kerry)
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