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Coronavirus: Iranian officials warn of strained health facilities as cases near 14,000

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Iran’s official leading the response to the worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East on Sunday acknowledged that the pandemic could overwhelm health facilities in the country, which is under severe U.S. sanctions.

Muslim authorities, meanwhile, announced that the Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, would be closed indefinitely due to concerns about the outbreak, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.

Similar measures have been taken at the nearby Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, where outdoor prayers continue but only 10 people at a time are permitted in enclosed areas, in keeping with measures taken by the Israeli government.

Iran is battling one of the worst outbreaks outside China. On Sunday the Health Ministry reported 113 more deaths, bringing the country’s death toll to 724 amid 13,938 confirmed cases. The real number of infections could be even higher, as questions have been raised about the government’s transparency.

“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 per cent of fatalities were in their 60s, some 15 per cent 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.

In Iran, the virus has infected a number of senior officials, including the senior vice-president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials.

Authorities have nevertheless been slow to adopt measures taken by other hard-hit countries. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday ruled out a general quarantine and said the government was working to keep the borders open.

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