(Combines stories, adds background)
By Michael Shields
ZURICH, March 19 (Reuters) - The southern Swiss canton of Ticino on the border with Italy is being swamped with coronavirus patients and authorities are battling to find enough intensive care beds, a top public health official said on Thursday.
“The situation in Ticino is dramatic,” Daniel Koch, head of the federal health agency’s communicable diseases department, told a news conference in Bern.
While the health system in the region was not yet turning people away, it was just a matter of time before the rising tide of patients overwhelmed it, Koch said.
Ticino has the highest incidence of coronavirus in Switzerland, with nearly 180 cases per 100,000 residents, government statistics show.
That suggests it accounts for some 16% of the country’s total coronavirus cases, with only around 4% of its population.
The total number of coronavirus cases in Switzerland and Liechtenstein has risen to 3,888, health authorities said on Thursday, with 33 people said to have died from the disease.
That compares to just 800 cases on Wednesday, when Switzerland reported 21 deaths.
The rate of infection pales next to Italy, the European country the virus has hit hardest, which as of Wednesday had reported a death toll of 2,978.
Instead of counting individual cases, Swiss authorities were moving to a system used to monitor influenza outbreaks that relies on projections based on daily reports by doctors, Koch said.
The spread of the disease is exacting an economic as well as human toll.
The Swiss National Bank said it was working closely with the government to cushion the economic impact of the epidemic, but it stressed that monetary policy alone cannot fight the economic downturn.
Government economists slashed growth forecasts for 2020, and are now expecting a recession, the first since the Swiss economy shrank 2.2% in 2009 during the global financial crisis.
“Provided the virus situation stabilises, the economy should gradually recover from the second half of the year onwards,” the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs said, conceding that forecasting uncertainties were “extraordinarily high”.
With other countries pouring money into their economies to stave off collapse, the Swiss cabinet was due to address additional support measures on Friday.
The government has already announced an aid package worth 10 billion Swiss francs ($10.2 billion), mostly earmarked for workers on short hours due to the spread of the virus. The next set of measures could add tens of billions more.
Bern has imposed border controls, urged people to stay at home and summoned army medical teams in the biggest military mobilisation since World War Two to help the beleaguered health care system, which relies heavily on foreign professionals.
$1 = 0.9789 Swiss francs Additional reporting by John Miller and John Revill; Editing by Jan Harvey