Iran reports 35 new virus deaths, lowest since March 7
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Iran on Saturday reported 35 new deaths from the coronavirus -- the lowest number since March 7 despite infections rising -- and announced a further relaxation of COVID-19-related closures.
"Despite the unfortunate loss of 35 of our compatriots in the past 24 hours, this number is the lowest in the past 70 days," health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said. The new deaths brought the overall toll to 6,937, he added.
But in an ominous sign, Iran on Friday reported its highest number of new infections in more than a month. "We are in no way in a normal situation yet," Jahanpour said.
He said 1,757 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed across Iran in the 24 hours to Saturday, bringing the overall total to 118,392. Of those hospitalised since Iran announced its first cases in the Shiite holy city of Qom in February, 93,147 have recovered and been discharged, according to the health ministry.
Jahanpour said the southwestern province of Khuzestan had the highest number of new hospitalisations and that the situation was "critical" in most of its counties. The key oil-producing province on the border with Iraq has become Iran's new coronavirus focal point, labelled "red" on Iran's colour-coded risk scale.
Khuzestan is the only province so far where authorities have reimposed shutdowns on businesses after a countrywide relaxation in April. The renewed closures in more than half of the province's counties were extended until Monday, Iran's ISNA news agency reported.
Governor Gholamreza Shariati warned of "fatigue" among medical workers as cases rise and appealed to residents to stay home.
At a meeting of Iran's coronavirus task force on Saturday, President Hassan Rouhani announced a timetable for further relaxations. He said that in 218 low-risk counties people would be allowed to attend Friday prayers next week. They would also be allowed to join annual Jerusalem Day rallies in solidarity with the Palestinians.
In Tehran, which is deemed high-risk, a "symbolic ceremony" would be performed with a motorcade supervised by the Revolutionary Guards. Rouhani said that from May 24 restaurants will be allowed to reopen. Pilgrims will be allowed to visit the outdoor areas of Shiite shrines but only during six hours of the day.
On June 6, universities, which have been closed since early March, will hold their final exams. "We must respect social distancing until further notice... (this epidemic) can last for months," the president cautioned.
He said that temporary leave for prisoners will be extended until June 20. Iran's judiciary began progressively granting detainees furlough in March and more than 100,000 are now on leave.