ROME, June 14 (Xinhua) -- Italy's four-month-old coronavirus situation continued to trend in the right direction, data from the Civil Protection Department showed Sunday, as political leaders are shifting their attention toward assuring safety and economic growth during the post-coronavirus period.
Over the previous 24 hours, Italy recorded 44 deaths from COVID-19, the lowest one-day fatalities since March 7.
There were 338 new cases of the disease recorded over the last day, down from 346 a day earlier but higher than 163 on Friday. Health officials said that day-to-day fluctuations are less important than the overall trend, which has been positive. The total of new cases has now been below 500 for 15 of the last 16 days, including Sunday, a level reached only three times over the 86 days before that.
The total number of active COVID-19 cases, as well as the figure of those hospitalized with symptoms, those in intensive care units, and those recovering at home, all dropped.
Earlier on Sunday, it was announced that Minister of Health Roberto Speranza signed a cooperation agreement with his counterparts in France, Germany, and the Netherlands for the co-production of a vaccine against COVID-19 when it is available. The deal guarantees that at least 30 million doses of the vaccine will be made available for Italy, the equivalent for around half of the country's population.
Water Ricciardi, a Health Ministry official, said that once a vaccine is available the first Italians to be protected against the coronavirus will be those in high-risk professions, such as frontline workers in hospitals.
Sunday marked the second day of a nine-day high-level talks organized by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte aimed at developing a strategy for stimulating economic growth in Italy as it emerges from weeks of coronavirus lockdown.
After a series of opening statements Saturday, the talks took place behind closed "virtual" doors -- many participants attended via video call.
The widespread use of face masks helped Italy avoid 78,000 additional infections, according to a study released over the weekend by renowned Mexican chemist Mario Molina, co-recipient of the 1995 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.
Sunday's data showed that Italy has recorded nearly 237,000 cases of the coronavirus since the outbreak started, which, according to Molina's estimates, means that it would have had more than 300,000 cases if face masks had not been so widely used up to this point.
In Lazio, the region that includes Rome, Regional President Nicola Zingaretti -- who was among the first high-profile figures in Italy who announced in March his infection with COVID-19 -- announced a series of measures aimed at restarting economic growth in the region, including trade fairs and corporate conferences. But Zingaretti also said he would delay the reopening of bingo halls and betting facilities, at least until next month.
The Emergency COVID-19 Center at the Campus Bio-medical University of Rome was shuttered as of Sunday. Hospital officials said that while new coronavirus infections are still being recorded, the outbreak appears to be "under control" in Lazio and that the biomedical center is no longer needed.
The improvements have taken place amid phased loosening of the coronavirus lockdown measures which went into place in early March. The next stage: restriction-free travel with most European countries starting Monday. Italy opened its border to travelers from most other parts of Europe starting June 3, but other countries lagged in offering reciprocal guarantees.
Next weekend, the continuation of the regular season for Serie A, Italy's top division football league, will get underway. But games will be played without fans in the stands until at least mid-July.