Sharp rise in virus cases in Lebanon after deadly port blast

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Relatives of three of ten firefighters who were killed during the Aug. 4 explosion that hit the seaport of Beirut, mourn during their funeral at the firefighter headquarters in Beirut, Lebanon, Monday, Aug. 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

BEIRUT – Lebanon is facing a surge in coronavirus cases after a devastating blast at the Beirut port earlier this month killed scores and wounded thousands, prompting medical officials on Monday to call for a two-week lockdown to try to contain the pandemic.

Virus numbers were expected to rise following the Aug. 4, explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port. Around 180 people were killed, more than 6,000 wounded and a quarter of a million left with homes unfit to live in. The blast overwhelmed the city's hospitals and also badly damaged two that had a key role in handling virus cases.

Medical officials had warned of the dangers of crowding at hospitals in the aftermath of the explosion, at funerals, or as people searched through the rubble. Protests and demonstrations also broke out after the blast as Lebanese vented their anger at authorities.

On Monday, the Health Ministry registered 456 new cases and two deaths, a new daily record after Sunday's 439 virus cases and six fatalities. The new infections bring to 9,337 the total number of cases in the small country of just over 5 million. Lebanon has reported a total of 105 fatalities.

The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most people, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.

The U.N. force deployed in southern Lebanon along the border with Israel reported 22 of its peacekeepers have tested positive. UNIFIL said it has been tracing and testing personnel who had potentially been in direct contact with an individual who tested positive last week. It says none of the peacekeepers have experienced symptoms.

Separately, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said four Palestinians died of the virus over the weekend — doubling to eight the number of fatalities in Palestinian refugee camps.

Strict measures imposed last spring had kept the number of cases under control in Lebanon, but they surged after a lockdown and nighttime curfew were lifted and the country's only international airport reopened in early July.