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A 15 percent spike in the coronavirus death toll in Iran overnight Tuesday marked the country’s single biggest 24-hour rise since officials first acknowledged COVID-19 cases in mid-February.
Officials said Wednesday that another 147 people have died, meaning at least 1,135 people are dead nationwide.
Meanwhile, the number of cases continues to grow, with about 17,361 infections across the Islamic Republic, the deputy health minister, Alireza Raisi, said in a briefing.
Health officials have urged the public to avoid travel and crowded places, but some food markets in the capital of Tehran still were packed on Wednesday. Highways were crowded as families traveled in anticipation of the Persian New Year, Nowruz, a normally joyous holiday that begins Friday.
Raisi criticized people for not adhering to the warnings. “This is not a good situation at all,” he said, imploring people to stay home.
The total number of confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide surpassed 200,000 on Wednesday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The death toll topped 8,000.
The Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering’s online tally also showed more than 82,000 people have recovered.
Iran's President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday defended his government's response to the coronavirus outbreak in the face of widespread criticism that officials acted too slowly and may have covered up initial cases.
In a speech to his Cabinet, Rouhani said the government was “straightforward" with the nation, saying it announced the outbreak as soon as it learned about it on Feb. 19.
"We spoke to people in a honest way. We had no delay,” he added.
The country announced it would close mosques for communal Friday prayers for a third consecutive week. Other Muslim countries, including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates have also canceled Friday prayers in mosques.
“It was difficult of course to shut down mosques and holy sites, but we did it. It was a religious duty to do it,” Rouhani said.
Elsewhere in the region, the number of cases continues to grow, though not as dramatically as seen in Iran.
In Israel, the Health Ministry said 90 more people have tested positive, bringing the country’s overall tally to 427. The rise comes a day after authorities issued new guidelines that put Israelis in near-shutdown mode - including using the Shin Bet internal security service to deploy phone surveillance technology to curb the spread of the virus.
In a nationwide address Tuesday night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of catastrophic consequences if people don't follow safety instructions.
“This is a huge crisis. We are only at the start of the campaign,” he said.
In Iraq – which has seen 11 deaths among 154 confirmed cases – a weeklong curfew went into effect in Baghdad where streets were largely empty and most shops were closed. Only pedestrians were allowed on the streets to buy necessary food and medicine. Armed Iraqi police were patrolling the city and setting up roadblocks.
In Egypt, authorities started to close shops to encourage people to stay at home. Coffee shops and restaurants were shuttered on Wednesday in Cairo, a city of over 20 million, while plain-clothed security forces urged people to go home.
“I am financially ruined, how can I earn my living now,” said Mohammed Gamal, a worker in a coffee shop that was shut down.
Egypt, which has reported nearly 200 cases and six deaths from the virus, has suspended flights, closed schools, is quarantining more than 300 families in a Nile Delta village, and imposed a lockdown in the Red Sea resort town of Hurghada.
In Pakistan, Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi, who this week visited China along with the country’s president Arif Alvi, said he is protectively quarantining himself on his physician’s advice.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.