March 4 (UPI) -- Italian education officials closed all schools and universities Wednesday in reaction to a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 107 people in the country.
Education Minister Lucia Azzolina made the announcement with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during a news conference at Palazzo Chigi, Conte's residence in Rome.
"It wasn't a simple decision for the government, we waited for the opinion of the scientific-technical committee and we decided to suspend teaching activities from tomorrow till March 15," Azzolina said.
"It is a decision of impact, I hope the pupils will return to school as soon as possible."
Italy's Civil Protection Agency said that in addition to the deaths, there were 2,706 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 disease in the country as of Wednesday. Most were centered in the Lombardy region, with smaller clusters in Emilia-Romagna, Veneto, Piedmont, the Marche, Campania, Liguria, Tuscany, Lazio, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Sicily, Puglia, Abruzzo, Trento, Molise, Umbria, Bolzano, Calabria, Sardinia and Basilicata.
Some 276 people have recovered from the disease.
Italy is experiencing the worst European outbreak of the virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, late last year. Significant clusters have also been reported in South Korea and Iran.
The World Health Organization said COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than the flu but has a higher mortality rate.
South Korea's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed 516 new cases of COVID-19 since the day prior on Wednesday evening, increasing its totals to 5,328 cases and 32 deaths after four people died from the virus in the past 24 hours. It is the largest epidemic outside China.
And in Iran, where officials were releasing tens of thousands of inmates to slow the disease's spread among its crowded prison system, health officials recorded 77 deaths and 2,336 confirmed cases.
Meanwhile, in China, where the disease first took hold but has seemingly loosened its grip, health officials reported 119 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday from the previous day and 38 deaths, a continuation of slowing numbers for the Asian nation that has experienced 2,981 deaths and 80,270 confirmed cases.
The virus has a mortality rate of 3.4 percent, higher than the seasonal flu, which kills about 1 percent of those infected, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Tuesday during a press briefing.
"While many people globally have built up immunity to seasonal flu strains, COVID-19 is a new virus to which no one has immunity," he said. "That means more people are susceptible to infection, and some will suffer severe disease."
COVID-19 also induces more severe disease than the seasonal flu, he said, adding it does not, however, transmit as effectively as the flu, since people carrying the virus without experiencing symptoms seemingly aren't the driving force behind the current epidemics.
"To summarize, COVID-19 spreads less efficiently than flu; transmission does not appear to be driven by people who are not sick; it causes more severe illness than flu; there are not yet any vaccines or therapeutics; and it can be contained -- which is why we must do everything we can to contain it," he said.
In Italy, Sports Minister Vincenzo Spadafora said fans will be kept out of Serie A professional soccer matches and other big sporting events, which instead will be played behind closed doors.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Hong Kong residents trapped in China began boarding the first of four government-chartered evacuation flights on Wednesday.
Patrick Nip, Hong Kong's secretary of constitutional and mainland affairs, said in a statement on Facebook that 109 people boarded the Cathay Pacific Airways flight after having their temperatures taken for signs of a fever, which barred one passenger from boarding.
"Passengers must wear protective clothes, masks, etc. before boarding," Nip said in a post that accompanied photos of passengers in masks and plastic ponchos queuing to board the flight.
All those on the flight are Hong Kong residents in Wuhan, a city at the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak that has been under lockdown for over a month.
Nip, along with other Hong Kong government officials, landed in China early Wednesday to facilitate the departures.
Priority was given to pregnant women, students preparing to write the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exam and patients with urgent medical needs, he said.
Two evacuation flights were expected to depart Wuhan for Hong Kong on Wednesday with two more scheduled for Thursday, repatriating some 522 residents, the South China Morning Post reported.
The evacuees are expected to be quarantined at the Chun Yeong Estate for two weeks, the incubation period of the coronavirus, once returning to the semi-autonomous region of China, which, as of Wednesday morning, had 100 confirmed cases of the disease.
Meanwhile, New Zealand confirmed its second patient infected with COVID-19, a woman in her 30s who recently returned to Auckland from northern Italy. The woman was in isolation at home, the Ministry of Health confirmed in a statement.
"Although we have our second case of COVID-19, with continued vigilance the chance of widespread community outbreak is expected to remain low," it said.
Air New Zealand confirmed the woman was a passenger on its Feb. 25 Singapore-to-Auckland flight. She then flew from Auckland to Palmerston North on Monday before flying back to Auckland that same day.
"The airline is working closely with the Ministry of Health and government agencies to identify and proactively contact customers who traveled on the Singapore service and the two regional flights," the airline said in a statement.