Italy’s death toll from coronavirus overtook that of China, where the virus first emerged, on Thursday as hospitals said they were being overwhelmed and the government prepared to prolong emergency lockdown measures.

A total 427 deaths were registered in Italy over the past 24 hours, bringing the total nationwide tally to 3 405 since the outbreak surfaced on February 21.

China has recorded 3 245 deaths since early January.

However, Italy has far fewer confirmed cases – 41 035 as of Thursday against 80 907 in China.

Officials and experts believe the total number of infections here is significantly higher, with testing largely limited to those arriving for hospital care. The country’s large, elderly population, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus, is also seen as factor for the high number of fatalities.

“We’re working in a state of very high stress and tension,” said Daniela Confalonieri, a nurse at a hospital in Milan, the capital of the wealthy northern region of Lombardy, which has been the epicentre of the epidemic.

“Unfortunately we can’t contain the situation in Lombardy. There’s a high level of contagion and we’re not even counting the dead any more,” she said.

The government announced late Thursday it was putting together a 300-strong team of medical volunteers from the rest of the country to reinforce to the worst-affected areas.

Underscoring the scale of the drama, soldiers transported bodies overnight from the northern town of Bergamo, northeast of Milan, whose cemetery has been overwhelmed.

An army spokesperson said 15 trucks and 50 soldiers had been deployed to move coffins to neighboring provinces. Earlier local authorities had appealed for help with cremations as their own crematorium could not cope with the huge workload.

“Look at the news that’s coming out of Italy and take note of what the situation really is like. It’s unimaginable,” said the Milan nurse, Confalonieri.

Italy went into virtual lockdown before other countries in Europe but, with cases still rising, the government is considering even tougher measures that would further restrict the limited amount of outdoor movement currently permitted.

Luca Zaia, governor of the Veneto region neighbouring Lombardy, demanded stronger curbs from Rome, including closing all shops on Sunday, and said if they were not passed, he would consider passing a regional decree.

“I hope there will soon be measures to restrict people jogging or going out for walks. I’m sorry about that, but the alternative is intensive care, hospitalization and contagion,” he said.

In the video below, SABC News Correspondent Hermyuhnee Kitson says the situation is dire in Italy: