People advised to avoid unnecessary trips
President Hassan Rouhani criticized the United States on Wednesday for trying to spread "fear" in Iran over a deadly outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
"We shouldn't let America mount a new virus on top of coronavirus that is called... extreme fear," Rouhani told a weekly cabinet meeting, a day after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of suppressing information about the outbreak.
The Americans "themselves are struggling with coronavirus. Some 16,000 people have died of influenza there but they don't talk about their own (dead)," Rouhani said.
“Coronavirus must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country,” he added.
“The Americans and our enemies during this time, around two years of which have passed, have wanted, with their sanctions and propaganda, to shut down production and economic activities in this country and for the people to suffer.”
Iran has been scrambling to contain COVID-19 since Wednesday last week when it announced the first two deaths in Qom, a center for Islamic studies and pilgrims that attracts scholars from abroad.
Authorities have closed schools, universities, cultural centers, sporting events and deployed teams of sanitary workers to disinfect buses, trains, and public places.
On Tuesday, Pompeo accused the Islamic Republic of concealing the true extent of the outbreak.
Iran has reported at least one death from coronavirus and two cases every day since February 19.
Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announced Wednesday that disease has so far claimed the lives of 19 people among 139 infections in Iran, including the deputy health minister – making it the deadliest outbreak outside China.
The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally, causing over 2,700 deaths, mainly in China. The World Health Organization has named the illness COVID-19.
No plan to quarantine
The president warned against either “understatement or overstatement” of the extent of the problem inside the country, and ruled out the possibility of any lockdowns.
“There will be no lockdowns of neighborhoods or cities. Only individual people showing the initial symptoms of the virus would be quarantined,” he said.
He went on to acknowledge that may take “one, two or three weeks” to get control of the virus in Iran, linked to most of the over 210 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the Mideast.
The outbreak could not possibly be more dangerous than the flu, which the country had already tackled, he said.
Rouhani said Iran had been making progress in the fight against the virus as "we witness fewer (hospital) visits and progress in treatment."
"If 100 people were hospitalized in the early days, seven to eight could have died, but this number has dropped very much today," he said.
The president vowed to be transparent about the numbers of deaths and infections caused by the virus.
Rouhani also said the coronavirus testing kits developed by Iranian experts are undergoing final tests and will enter the mass-production stage in the near future.
All the initial tests on the package have proven to be “positive and credible,” Rouhani said.
“Shortly, we will be able to make hundreds of thousands and even millions of these kits, and place them at the disposal of all of the country’s hospitals” he said, noting that the package would enable medics to easily diagnose new cases.
Health Minister Saeid Namaki urged Iranians to avoid “nonessential travel,” particularly to the hard-hit provinces of the country such as Gilan and Qom.
"We now expect people not to go on trips when we do not enforce quarantine," Namaki.
“Gilan and northern cities of the country are now infected, but people are traveling to these areas, making the work of the Health Ministry more burdensome,” he said, warning that unnecessary trips can push the virus out of control.
In Tehran overnight, workers disinfected mass-transit buses and the capital's metro system, removing overhead handles in an effort to limit areas the virus could be picked up from. Traffic again appeared lighter on Tehran's normally gridlocked roads amid a winter rain, as signs warned Iranians not to touch surfaces in crowded areas.
Jahanpour on Tuesday suggested it could take as long as late April to control the virus. And with the Persian New Year, or Norouz, coming March 20, there are worries about the virus spreading even further across the country if not stopped by then.
AFP, AP, Reuters, and Press TV contributed to this story.