The new coronavirus is forcing more top Israeli officials into isolation after the country's health minister, who has had frequent contact with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, tested positive, the Health Ministry said Thursday.
The Middle East has over 81,000 confirmed cases of the virus, most of those in Iran, and over 3,600 deaths. Iran's Health Ministry said Thursday that the new coronavirus killed another 124 people, pushing the country's death toll to 3,160.In a rare acknowledgment of the severity of the outbreak by a senior Iranian official, President Hassan Rouhani said the new coronavirus may remain through the end of the Iranian year, which just began late last month, state TV reported Thursday.
"The corona issue is not an issue that we can say it will be ended (on a specific) day. It is possible corona will be with us for the coming months. It is possible it will be with us by the end of the year. We always have to follow healthy protocols provided by the health ministry," Rouhani said.
In Lebanon, the Philippines ambassador, Bernardita Catalla, died of complications from the coronavirus Thursday, the Philippines said. Lebanon has recorded 494 cases, including 16 deaths.
Israeli Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and his wife, who also contracted the virus, are in isolation, feel well and are being treated, the ministry statement said.
Shortly after the announcement, the prime minister's office said Netanyahu returned to self-quarantine because of his contact with Litzman. Netanyahu had previously been in isolation after a top aide tested positive for the virus. Netanyahu has tested negative.
Hebrew language media reported that the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency and the National Security Council were asked to self-quarantine because of their interactions with Litzman.The Health Ministry director and Litzman's staff also self-quarantined, and the ministry said that requests to enter isolation will be sent to those who came in contact with the minister in the past two weeks.
Israel has gone into near-lockdown to try to contain the virus outbreak. The country has reported just over 6,200 confirmed cases and 29 people have died of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Israel's large, insular ultra-Orthodox community, of which Litzman is a member, has been particularly hard hit by infections. In the early phases of the outbreak, some rabbis had pushed back or ignored government-mandated movement restrictions, but resistance appears to have diminished.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu ordered a police cordon around the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, east of Tel Aviv, to limit movement to and from the city. Bnei Brak has the second highest number of coronavirus cases in Israel.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia or death.
In Syria, the government extended the closures of mosques until April 16, nearly a week before the start of the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims spend more time in prayers and worshiping. The government also extended indefinitely a ban on visits to prison and detention facilities, citing concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.
Rights groups have called on governments in the region to release thousands of political detainees held in crammed and unhygienic facilities with little recourse to justice. In government-controlled Syria, 10 cases of infection and two deaths were reported, amid concerns the virus may be more widespread.
In rebel-controlled northwest Syria, the World Health Organization said it is increasing preparedness and testing capacities in the region that is home to nearly 4 million people, most of them displaced by the war and where health facilities have been targeted in repeated government military offensives.
Testing facilities were only delivered to the war-battered region late last month, and now there are up to 900 tests are available in the northwest.
Hedinn Halldorsson, spokesman for WHO, said 5,000 more tests arrive Friday while 90 new ventilators are procured to be sent to the rebel-held area, while WHO is looking to equip a second lab. Of 23 tests carried out in northwest Idlib, 20 were negative and three are pending, he said.
Concerns are high that in northwestern Syria, where only half of the health facilities are functioning and where displaced camps are crowded, the virus transmission would be fast once it reaches the area.