Even some of the most cautious health officials seized on the figures as evidence that the tide might be turning in the deadliest disaster the country has faced since World War II.

Civil protection service chief Angelo Borrelli called the drop from 4,068 on Friday to 3,994 on Saturday a big moment in Italy's battle against COVID-19.

"This is a very important data point because the figure is decreasing for the first time," Borrelli told reporters.

"It is important because it allows our hospitals to breathe."

Caught off guard

The pace and strength with which the new disease swept across Italy's northern industrial heartland caught the country off guard.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte decided to impose an economically crippling lockdown in a bid to save the health care system from collapse.

He called in thousands of retired doctors and spent hundreds of millions of euros to shore up Italy's emergency wards.

But some hospitals still had to send out critical patients for treatment in less overwhelmed regions last month.

And doctors in the hardest hit areas at the peak of the Italian wave had to make life and death decisions about whom to try to save -- and whom to send home.

But their efforts appeared to be showing results Saturday.

Italy's coronavirus emergency commissioner Domenico Arcuri said the total number of intensive care beds across the country had almost doubled to 9,284 in the past month.

"Our fight against this unknown and invisible enemy continues unabated," Arcuri said Saturday.

No easing

Borrelli has been extremely careful not to give Italians false hope in his daily rundown of how many people have died where.

But his tone Saturday was markedly more upbeat.

He cast the figures showing Italy's toll rising by 681 to 15,362 -- officially higher than in any other country -- in a positive light.

"This figure is constantly decreasing," the civil protection service chief stressed.

"I want to remind you that (on March 27), we had almost 1,000 dead."

Italy recorded 969 deaths that day -- a record that stood until the United States reported nearly 1,500 fatalities between Thursday and Friday.

But officials here are still not declaring victory. Instead some are preparing the country for at least another month of life under a general lockdown that many would like to see end.

The drop in critical care patients "is a strong signal but it should absolutely not be read as a sign that we have overcome the critical stage," the government's scientific council head Franco Locatelli said.

"It shows that the measures that we have been applying have had success."

Milan's northern Lombardy region -- home to 10 million people and over a fifth of Italy's total economic output -- had been under lockdown since the end of February.

The measures there are getting more stringent by the day.

It banned jogging two weeks ago and announced a requirement for everyone to ware a facemask starting Sunday.

The region's stores will also have to provide customers with disposable plastic gloves.

zak/jj