Iran Reports More Than 100 New Virus Deaths As Fears Mount

People wearing face masks exercise on the shore of an artificial lake, in Western Tehran, Iran, Sunday, March 15, 2020. Many people in Tehran shrugged off warnings over the new coronavirus as authorities complained that most people in the capital are not treating the crisis seriously enough. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — The official leading Iran’s response to the new coronavirus acknowledged Sunday that the pandemic could overwhelm health facilities in his country, which is battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East while under heavy U.S. sanctions.

Iran’s Health Ministry reported another 113 deaths, bringing the country’s total death toll to 724, with nearly 14,000 confirmed cases. It was the biggest single-day jump in fatalities since the virus was first reported in the country.

Muslim authorities meanwhile announced that the Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, would be closed indefinitely, as well as the iconic golden Dome of the Rock. Prayers would still be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Outdoor prayers also continued at the nearby Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Iran’s outbreak has caused growing alarm, with concerns about the government’s transparency in reporting the extent of the epidemic and its ability to contain it.

“If the trend continues, there will not be enough capacity,” Ali Reza Zali, who is leading the campaign against the outbreak, was quoted as saying earlier by the state-run IRNA news agency.

Iran is believed to have around 110,000 hospital beds, including 30,000 in the capital, Tehran. Authorities have pledged to set up mobile clinics as needed.

Zali also acknowledged that “many” of those who have died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus were otherwise healthy, a rare admission by local authorities that the virus does not only prey on the sick and elderly.

Health Ministry figures show that while 55% of fatalities were in their 60s, some 15% were younger than 40.

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Most people recover in a matter of weeks.

The virus has infected more than 150,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,800. More than 70,000 people worldwide have recovered after being infected.

Dalia Samhouri, a senior regional official with the World Health Organization, said both Iran and Egypt, two of the most populous countries in the Middle East, were likely underreporting cases because of the nature of the virus, which can be spread by individuals who show no visible symptoms. Egypt has reported 110 cases, including two fatalities.

Iran has struggled to respond in part because of crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal. The U.S. says it has offered humanitarian aid but that Iran has rejected it.

Countries across the Middle East have imposed sweeping travel restrictions, cancelled public events and called on non-essential businesses to close for the coming weeks. Many have temporarily closed schools and universities.

Iraq announced Sunday that it will impose a week-long curfew in Baghdad beginning 11 p.m. Tuesday, including all flights at the capital’s international airport. All governmental institutions will close except those providing health and security services. The Baghdad curfew will not impact the flow of commercial goods, the statement said. Provincial governors were also given the authority to impose curfews.

Iraq had 124 confirmed coronavirus cases and nine deaths, the Health Ministry said Sunday.

Oman state television on Sunday announced a ban on almost all foreigners entering the country. It said only Omanis and citizens of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council could enter the country, and would be quarantined. It said all weddings and public events were halted.

Meanwhile, Qatar announced late Sunday it would stop all passenger flights into the small, energy-rich country beginning Wednesday. Cargo and “transit flights” would be exempt, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency. It wasn’t immediately clear how that would affect the long-haul carrier Qatar Airways.

Any Qatari returning from abroad would be quarantined for two weeks, while public transport will be shut down from Sunday night. Qatar now has over 400 confirmed cases of the virus, its Health Ministry said.

Qatar separately announced a $20.5 billion stimulus plan to add its economy amid the outbreak.

Dubai and Abu Dhabi on Sunday closed places of leisure such as cinemas, gyms and museums through the end of the month.

In Lebanon, police used loudspeakers to order people to evacuate the city’s famous Mediterranean boardwalk. The small country, which has reported 99 cases and three deaths, already closed all restaurants and nightclubs, halted flights from several countries and tightened border controls.

Two people were killed in a prison riot in the Jordanian city of Irbid, after officials banned visits to the facility for two weeks as a precaution. The prison service said security forces were still working to gain control of the situation.

Saudi Arabia has suspended the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina and could be forced to limit or cancel the much larger hajj later this year. On Sunday, it announced the temporary closure of all mosques and called off Friday prayers.

In Israel, this weeks corruption trial for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was postponed for two months due to restrictions on public gatherings. Netanyahu and those in “close proximity” to him have been tested for the virus, despite not showing any symptoms, his office said. The tests came back negative.

Israel imposed sweeping travel and quarantine measures more than a week ago but has seen its number of confirmed cases double in recent days, to around 200.

The Palestinian Authority has reported 38 coronavirus cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, nearly all connected to an outbreak in the town of Bethlehem, where Jesus is believed to have been born. Israel and the Palestinians have largely sealed the town off.

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