Virus death toll spikes in Iran, with total now at 1,135

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In this photo released by the official website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency, President Hassan Rouhani attends a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Iran has been the hardest hit country by the new coronavirus in the Middle East. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. (Office of the Iranian Presidency via AP)

JERUSALEM – Iran on Wednesday reported its single biggest jump in fatalities from the coronavirus as another 147 people died, raising the country's overall death toll to 1,135.

The nearly 15% spike in deaths — amid a total of 17,361 confirmed cases in Iran — marks the biggest 24-hour rise in fatalities since Iranian officials first acknowledged infections of the virus in mid-February.

Even as the number of cases grows, food markets were still packed with shoppers and highways were crowded as families traveled ahead of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, on Friday.

Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi urged the public to avoid travel and crowds, telling Iranians the days ahead represented two “golden weeks” to try curb the virus.

He criticized people for not adhering to the warnings to stay home. “This is not a good situation at all,” he said.

President Hassan Rouhani defended his government's response to the outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that Iran acted too slowly and might even have covered up initial cases. He told his Cabinet the government was being “straightforward," saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it Feb. 19.

"We spoke to people in an honest way. We had no delay,” he added.

For weeks, officials implored clerics to shut down crowded Shiite shrines to halt the spread of the virus. The government was only able to close them this week.