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Iran Braces For Spike In Coronavirus Cases As Death Toll Rises To 34

Shop in Qom selling decorative pendants made with peganum harmala seedpods to avert evil eye and ward off disease. February 27, 2020.
Shop in Qom selling decorative pendants made with peganum harmala seedpods to avert evil eye and ward off disease. February 27, 2020.

Iran health officials on Friday warned about a spike in the number of coronavirus (COVID-19) infections in the coming days as the official death toll rose to 34 with 388 confirmed cases.

In a tweet on Friday morning Dr. Kianoush Jahanpour, the Spokesman of Iran's Health Ministry, said the number of cases of coronavirus infection in the coming days will be on the rise and advised the public to stay home and avoid any kind of gathering "throughout the country".

At a press conference on Friday Jahanpour said the death toll has risen to 34 with 388 confirmed cases and 73 cases of recovery from the infection. According to the latest statistics the highest number of newly confirmed cases belong to Tehran Province (64) followed by Gilan Province (25) and Qom Province, the epicenter of the outbreak (16).

BBC's Persian Service, however, on Friday evening said according to information it has received from sources in Iranian hospitals, the tally of the death toll in various Iranian cities until Thursday was at least 210.

Dr. Jahanpour in another tweet said the COVID-19 test kit made by the Defense Ministry will receive its final approval and reach production stage next week.

At a news conference on Thursday Dr. Mike (Michael) Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation’s Emergencies Program, said the new coronavirus entered Iran "unseen and undetected" so the extent of infection may be broader than what we may be seeing".

According to Dr. Ryan at the start of an epidemic only the severe cases may be noticed but surveillance and detection will reveal the real extent after the initial stage. The WHO official, however, said Iran has a "very high clinical capacity".

On Thursday Ali Abrazeh, Deputy Chancellor of Qom Medical University, said Kamkar and Forqani, the two hospitals dedicated to coronavirus patients, were both full and since Tuesday patients are being transferred to Emam Reza Hospital. "We will prepare a field hospital if the outbreak reaches a higher level. If necessary the Army and Revolutionary Guard will also pitch their field hospitals in Qom," Abrazi said.

The Chancellor of Qom university, Mohammad-Reza Qadir, has been diagnosed with the virus and is in quarantine. According to the Deputy Chancellor two of the chancellor's other deputies and 10 medical staff in Qom have also been infected with coronavirus.

The religious authorities of Qom which is known as the religious capital of Iran and other cities resisted cancellation of Friday prayers and other religious ceremonies very strongly but on Thursday finally gave in to the advice of National Coronavirus Combat Task Force headed by Health Minister Saeed Namaki.

Revolutionary Guard spraying the city of Qom.

In a statement on Friday the Friday Prayer Policy Making Council said it had cancelled Friday prayers in Tehran and 22 other province capitals.

Iran's two biggest shrines in Mashhad and Qom, however, have still not been closed to the public. Iranian news agencies have posted videos of disinfection of the shrines.

Since Thursday Iranian news agencies have reported the temporary release of a number of prisoners including a political prisoner and a journalist. After unconfirmed reports about coronavirus cases in two Iranian prisons and warnings of human rights activists, on Wednesday Chief Justice Ebrahim Raeesi (Raisi) issued an order to allow some prisoners to go on furlough after "posting suitable bail".

Religious authorities have resisted closure of shrines but are spraying some of them including the Shrine of Imam Reza in Mashhad.

The furlough permission, however, does not apply to "security prisoners" sentenced to more than five years for "acting against national security". Iran does not officially acknowledge the term "political prisoner" and instead uses "security prisoner".

The virus has struck several high-profile officials and lawmakers including Masoumeh Ebtekar, Vice-President in Women's Affairs and four of the thirty lawmakers suspected of coronavirus infection in addition to two lawmakers who had tested positive in previous days.

Meanwhile, Iran's neighbors are still taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus from Iran by keeping their borders closed.

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    Maryam Sinaiee

    Maryam Sinaiee is a British-Iranian journalist, political analyst and former correspondent of The National, who contributes to Radio Farda.