By Babak Dehghanpisheh
DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran on Friday announced a three-day nationwide school closure as officials warned the country faced a “difficult week” in fighting a coronavirus outbreak that has killed 34 people.
The Islamic Republic had already cancelled Friday prayers in the capitals of 23 of its 31 provinces because of the outbreak, including in Tehran and the Shi’ite Muslim holy cities of Qom and Mashhad.
“We have a relatively difficult week ahead … as we see the trend, the main peak of the disease will be in the next week and coming days,” Health Minister Saeed Namaki said on state television.
“Based on assessments it was felt that there was a need for closing all the schools in the country and for this reason all the schools in the country will be closed for three days starting from tomorrow,” Namaki said.
The health ministry’s spokesman, Kianush Jahanpur, went on state television to announce the latest death toll, the highest outside China, and said another 388 people were infected with the virus.
The vast majority of infections were in three provinces: Tehran, 128, Qom, 88, and Gilan, 65, according to a map published by the official IRNA news agency.
“We have tough but manageable days ahead. We all should take prevention, containment and treatment more seriously,” First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said on Twitter.
Those infected include Deputy Health Minister Iraj Harirchi and Masoumeh Ebtekar, vice president for women and family affairs, and two members of parliament, where sessions have been suspended indefinitely, according to IRNA.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had offered to help with the coronavirus response in Iran, and raised doubts about Tehran’s willingness to share information.
There was no immediate Iranian reaction to the U.S. offer of help.
The Islamic Republic is the only country in the Gulf region that has reported deaths from the coronavirus, which has spread from China, but people have been infected in Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.
Five new cases reported on Friday in Bahrain took the total diagnosed with the coronavirus there to 38, and two new cases reported by Kuwait took the total infected there to 45.
All those infected in Bahrain and Kuwait had travelled to Iran or were contaminated by people who went there, according to officials in the two Gulf Arab states.
The United Arab Emirates has granted Iran permission to send a handful of flights to Dubai to fly home Iranians stranded at airports after flight cancellations, the ISNA news agency reported, citing information from Iran’s consulate in Dubai.
Saudi Arabia has reported no deaths or infections and has tightened travel restrictions to try to prevent it spreading across its borders.
The United States asked its military in Saudi Arabia to avoid crowded venues including malls and cinemas as coronavirus was reported spreading in neighbouring countries, according to a document from the U.S. embassy seen by Reuters on Friday.
Oman on Friday restricted the entry of citizens from other Gulf Arab states who had previously been able to enter by showing national identification cards.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh and Maher Chmaytelli in Dubai, additional reporting by Dubai newsroom, Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Alex Richardson, Timothy Heritage and Catherine Evans)