People warned to avoid visiting Qom
Iran’s Health Ministry raised Sunday the death toll from the new virus to eight people in the country, amid concerns that clusters there, as well as in Italy and South Korea, could signal a serious new stage in its global spread.
There were now 43 confirmed cases of the illness in Iran, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said.
The outbreak in Iran has centered mostly on the city of Qom, but spread rapidly over the past few days to people in several other cities, including the capital, Tehran.
Authorities have ordered as a "preventive measure" the closure of schools, universities, and other educational centers in 14 provinces across Iran from Sunday.
They include Tehran and Qom, where the first cases emerged, as well as Markazi, Gilan, Ardebil, Kermanshah, Qazvin, Zanjan, Mazandaran, Golestan, Hamedan, Alborz, Semnan, and Kurdestan.
Those who live in student dorms were asked to return to their hometowns and continue classes through the Internet, if possible.
Iran reported its first cases of the virus on Wednesday, announcing that same day that two people had died from the virus in Qom.
Jahanpour said the 15 newly confirmed cases included seven in Qom, four in Tehran, two in the northern Gilan Province, one in the Markazi Province, and one from town of Tonekabon in the northern Mazandaran Province, who died of the illness.
‘From China to Qom’
Iran’s Health Minister Saeid Namaki told national TV that officials were nearly certain the virus came from China to Qom in central Iran.
He also said that among those who’ve died from the virus was a merchant who regularly shuttled between the two countries using indirect flights in recent weeks, after Iran stopped direct passenger flights to China.
He did not say when the merchant had returned from China to Iran nor what steps health officials had taken to quarantine and check on those he’d come into contact with.
Namaki defended the government’s handling of the outbreak, saying it was being “transparent.”
"In every city, one hospital will be dedicated to treating coronavirus cases," he said, adding that this number would be greater in bigger cities like the capital.
He said it would help make face-masks and sanitizers available for Iranians, amid concerns that stocks were running low in the capital’s pharmacies.
Iran is also producing kits for diagnosis of the infection, he added.
Namaki urged people not to visit Qom, which is a major destination for Shia pilgrims from inside Iran and abroad.
“We obviously do not recommend traveling to Qom and other pilgrimage cities,” Namaki said.
"We are on the frontlines, we need help," the head of Qom's Medical Sciences University, Mohammadreza Ghadir, said.
The government has closed down schools and religious seminaries in Qom, where the virus first killed two elderly patients last week.
Football matches and shows in movie theaters were further suspended, and authorities have begun sanitizing Tehran’s metro, which is used by some three million people, and public transportation vehicles in the city on a daily basis.
Iran has also set up 36 screening stations at different ports of entry to the country to check for possibly infected travelers, Namaki added.
Tehran's city hall has ordered the closure of snack shops and water fountains in metro stations, officials said.
Mohsen Hashemi, the head of Tehran City Council, said, "If the number of infections increases in Tehran, the whole city will be quarantined."
Posters were also being put up across the sprawling city on Sunday, asking people not to shake hands as part of a coronavirus prevention campaign.
Iran's cyber police meanwhile warned that anyone putting "fake clips" online related to the virus would be punished.
The World Health Organization has expressed concern over the speed at which COVID-19 has spread in Iran, as well as it being exported from the Islamic Republic to other countries.
Iraq and Pakistan, which share borders with Iran, have already taken preventive measures to limit the spread of the virus from Iranian travelers.
Officials in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which shares a long frontier with Iran, have declared an emergency as they seek to stop the spread of the virus. They have suspended almost all traffic across the Taftan border crossing with Iran there.
Infected travelers from Iran already have been discovered in Lebanon and Canada.
Lebanon’s first case of the new virus was discovered on a flight from the Iranian city of Qom this week.
Saudi Arabia has ordered anyone traveling from Iran to wait at least 14 days before entering the kingdom as it seeks to prevent the spread of the virus to the Muslim pilgrimage sites of Mecca and Medina. It has also barred its residents and citizens from traveling to Iran and China.
The Kuwait Port Authority on Sunday announced a ban on the entry of all ships from Iran.
AP and AFP contributed to this story.