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Iran death toll from virus passes 600, Syria shuts schools

DUBAI – Iran said Saturday the coronavirus outbreak has killed another 97 people, pushing the death toll in the country to 611, as war-ravaged Syria announced a number of strict measures despite the government saying it has no confirmed cases.

Iran is suffering from the worst outbreak in the Middle East, with 12,729 cases and even senior officials testing positive. It is a close ally of the Syrian government in the civil war, with military advisors as well as Shiite pilgrims frequently traveling between the two countries.

A spokesman for Iran's Health Ministry announced the latest cases on state TV. Health Minister Saeed Namaki said there would be “some new restrictions” on movement into and out of cities, without elaborating.

There are concerns that the number of infections in Iran is much higher than the confirmed cases reported by the government, with some Iranian lawmakers having questioned the official toll.

The outbreak has not spared Iran’s top officials, with its senior vice president, Cabinet ministers, members of parliament, Revolutionary Guard members and Health Ministry officials among those infected.

Iran has suspended schools and banned spectators from stadiums, but religious shrines remain open and the markets and streets are still crowded in the capital, Tehran, which has been hit hardest by the virus.

For most people, the new coronavirus 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.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus in a matter of weeks, but the outbreak has caused more than 5,000 deaths worldwide.

The Syrian government announced a series of precautionary measures, including closing schools and universities until April 2.

Following a Cabinet meeting Friday evening, the government also said it was reducing working hours in public institutions and canceling all cultural and sporting events, and all other events involving large gatherings, for the time being.

Syria also says it has taken preventive measures at all ports and border crossings. It has suspended travel with neighboring countries Iraq and Jordan, and it has halted religious tourism for a month.

Even in the tenth year of its devastating civil war, Syria has continued to receive large numbers of pilgrims from Iran, Iraq and neighboring Lebanon. They particularly visit the shrine of Sayida Zaynab, the prophet Muhammad’s granddaughter, in a suburb of the capital Damascus.

Other countries across the Middle East have already taken steps to contain the outbreak.

Earlier Saturday, Saudi Arabia said it would halt all flights to the kingdom for two weeks. The state-run Saudi Press Agency, quoting an unnamed Interior Ministry official, said flights would be cancelled starting Sunday.

Authorities in Iraq's northern Kurdish region imposed a 48-hour curfew in the cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniyah that began overnight. The region has reported 27 cases, including one fatality from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus.

The Gulf nation of Oman announced it would close all schools and educational facilities for one month.

In the United Arab Emirates, health officials ordered the elderly to stay home and authorities said some federal employees could begin working from home for two weeks starting Sunday.

Abu Dhabi’s The National newspaper reported that nightclubs and tourist restaurants in the emirate will be shut down until the end of March. The Department of Culture and Tourism also suspended all planned events, including concerts, in Abu Dhabi. The decision does not extend to Dubai.

A number of major sporting events, conferences and other gatherings have been cancelled across the globe. The virus is highly contagious, and even those showing no symptoms can spread it, making large public gatherings particularly risky.

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Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Salar Salim in Irbil, Iraq, and Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem contributed.

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