DUBAI – 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.
Elsewhere in the region, Lebanon ordered residents not to leave their homes except for urgent necessities and even closed down Beirut's famous Mediterranean boardwalk. Muslim authorities indefinitely closed the Al-Aqsa mosque in east Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam, with prayers continuing to be held on the sprawling esplanade outside.
Iran's Health Ministry on Sunday reported another 113 deaths, the biggest single-day jump in fatalities. That brings the country's total death toll to 724, with nearly 14,000 confirmed cases, one of the worst outbreaks outside China.
“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 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 acknowledged that “many” who 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’s health ministry on Sunday added 16 more cases of the new coronavirus, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 126, including two fatalities: a German tourist and an Egyptian women, both in their 60s. The ministry said in a statement the new cases include eight Egyptians and eight foreigners. It said that as of Sunday a total of 26 recovered and were discharged from the quarantine.
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.
Across the Middle East, Lebanon, Iraq, Oman and Qatar imposed new restrictions on movement Sunday. Many countries have already enacted sweeping limits on travel, public events and non-essential businesses. Some have temporarily closed schools and universities.
Lebanon's effective lockdown was put in place after a Cabinet meeting, and appeared to only allow buying food and other essentials. But the announcement said that by late Wednesday, the country's international airport, ports and borders would close and that Lebanese citizens abroad had until then to return home.
Private businesses and Lebanese governmental institutions were shuttered, except those related to making or selling food, bakeries, banks, exchange shops and the central bank.
The small country has reported 99 cases and three deaths. Police used loudspeakers to order people off the Beirut boardwalk earlier Sunday afternoon.
Iraq also announced that it would impose a week-long curfew in Baghdad starting Tuesday at 11 p.m., including all flights at the capital's international airport. All governmental institutions would close except those providing health and security services.
Iraq's Health Ministry had confirmed 124 coronavirus cases and nine deaths as of Sunday.
Both Iraq and Lebanon have been largely in disarray since anti-government protests broke out last year, and Lebanon was already experiencing its worst financial crisis in years before the coronavirus pandemic began.
In the Gulf, 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.
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.
Qatar now has over 400 confirmed cases of the virus, its Health Ministry said. Qatari and Omani citizens would now be quarantine after returning home.
Qatar separately announced a $20.5 billion stimulus plan to aid its economy amid the outbreak.
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.
The corruption trial for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was postponed for two months due to restrictions on public gatherings. Tests on Netanyahu and those in “close proximity” to him for the virus came back negative.
Israel's confirmed cases have doubled in recent days to around 200.
Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque was the latest in a series of closures or limits at religious sites. 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.
Sheikh Omar Kiswani, the director of the Al-Aqsa mosque, said the iconic golden Dome of the Rock was closed as well.
Outdoor prayers in Jerusalem would continue at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.
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.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Aron Heller and Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Jon Gambrell and Fay Abuelgasim in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Samya Kullab in Baghdad; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.
The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.