By Syed Zafar Mehdi
TEHRAN (AA) - On June 2 last year, after reporting zero deaths from COVID-19 following two years of multiple devastating waves, Iran’s Health Minister Bahram Einollahi congratulated the nation.
Ten months on, the Middle East’s worst-hit country is grappling with the eighth wave of the coronavirus pandemic amid an alarming surge in new infections and related deaths.
Health Ministry spokesperson Pedram Pakaein on Thursday said the upsurge in COVID-19 infections in the past few weeks has fueled the new wave, causing an increase in hospital referrals.
He said the virus is circulating in the country in the form of omicron subvariants of XBB and BQ.1, both deemed highly transmissible. The XBB, detected first in India last August, has already been identified in 17 other countries, including the US.
Pakaein, however, added that the tally of COVID-19 infections and deaths in Iran has been relatively lesser than in the US and Europe, which reported the first cases in 2020 after Iran.
According to the Health Ministry’s daily bulletin on Thursday, 23 more people died of the cataclysmic virus in the past 24 hours, taking the total death toll to 145,319 since early 2020.
As many as 1,039 people also contracted the infection in the past 24 hours, including 486 people who required hospitalization, the ministry said, pointing to the fresh wave of the pandemic.
At present, 13 Iranian cities are in the high-risk “red” category on the color-coded COVID-19 map released by the Health Ministry, 48 cities in the moderate-risk “orange” category, 194 cities in the low-risk “yellow” category and 193 in the normal “blue category.”
The number of cities in the high-risk category has markedly increased from four in early March to 13 now. In June last year, when the seventh wave ended, no city was marked as high risk.
“Uptick in fresh COVID-19 infections and deaths in recent weeks isn’t a pleasing trend, especially after we overcame multiple waves of the pandemic to record zero deaths last year and infections also came down to three-digits,” Dr. Shariyar Haideri, a Tehran-based epidemiologist, told Anadolu.
He attributed it to the “lack of adherence to health and safety protocols” as well as “many people skipping triple vaccine doses” assuming that the “worst is over.”
- New wave and holidays
Notably, daily infections hit the four-digit figure this week first time since September last year as people have been traveling to different cities to mark the Iranian New Year (Newruz).
The Iranian calendar year begins on March 21 and holidays normally last two weeks.
In his remarks on Thursday, Hossein Farshidi, Iran’s deputy health minister, warned that the fresh COVID-19 wave could peak toward the end of the New Year holidays, stressing that the effective way to prevent the proliferation of new cases is to “wear face masks.”
He referred to the increase in air travel during the New Year holidays and people not wearing masks, warning that the caseload could rise as the holidays end and people return to their cities.
Mojtaba Neku, a tour and travel operator in southern Iran’s Shiraz city, told Anadolu the influx of tourists this year has been the highest since the pandemic broke out in Iran in February 2020.
“For the past three years, people were mostly confined to their homes, so as the pandemic restrictions were eased in recent months, we had advance bookings for Newruz this year,” he said, adding that the maximum footfall was witnessed in Shiraz, Isfahan and northern coastal cities.
Pertinently, the fourth and biggest wave hit Iran following the Newruz holidays in 2021 when authorities imposed curbs on inter-city travel and night curfew after a surge in hospitalizations.
Pakaein said more than 600 people are currently admitted to intensive care units in hospitals across the country, most of them with underlying cardiovascular, pulmonary and respiratory ailments, confirming the eighth wave of the pandemic.
Earlier this week, Health Minister Einollahi announced that the country entered the eighth wave of the pandemic, adding that visits to healthcare centers had increased in recent weeks.
He urged the people to get vaccinated, saying the country’s scientific firms have 50 million doses in their stocks and have been exporting them to other countries.
According to the Health Ministry data, so far more than 65.2 million people have received at least one vaccine dose, more than 58.6 million have received two doses, while only around 32 million have received more than two doses.
- Coronavirus in Iran
In mid-February 2020, Iran became one of the first countries in the Middle East region to report cases of coronavirus after two people in the central city of Qom contracted the virus, which eventually claimed their lives.
The highly transmissible virus soon spread to other major Iranian cities, including the capital Tehran, and the country witnessed seven devastating waves of the pandemic until June 2022.
The slow pace of vaccination in the initial phase only complicated efforts to contain the spread of the virus, as authorities blamed Western sanctions for the spurt in cases.
“The pandemic hit Iran the hardest given years of sanctions, fragile healthcare infrastructure and delayed vaccination drive, claiming thousands of precious lives,” Haideri said, blaming both “internal mismanagement” and “external pressures” for the crisis.
It was only in February 2021, when the country was bracing for the fourth wave, that the vaccination rollout began days after a shipment of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine arrived in Tehran.
In the next year, especially after the new government took over in Tehran, at least four homegrown vaccines were produced, including Coviran Baraket by the Barakat Pharmaceutical Group.
Although most cases in the new wave are mild in nature, the rate of hospitalizations has substantially increased in recent weeks, including at Masih Daneshvari Hospital, the country’s primary medical center for coronavirus referrals, according to the hospital’s deputy head Dr. Payam Tabarsi.
“COVID-19 is still circulating, and has not been eliminated,” Dr. Tabarsi warned earlier this month, urging continued adherence to health and safety protocols.