Iran sets new record for virus infections amid holiday surge

People wearing protective face masks to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus walk on a sidewalk in downtown Tehran, Iran, Monday, April 5, 2021. Iran shattered its daily record for new coronavirus infections Wednesday for the second consecutive day, with recorded cases soaring to 20,954. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran shattered its daily record for new infections for the second consecutive day on Wednesday as cases soared to 20,954, a worrisome trend after more than a year of the country battling the worst outbreak in the Middle East.

Iran’s severe surge triggered new movement restrictions in major cities Wednesday following a two-week public holiday for Nowruz, the Persian New Year, which drove millions to travel to the Caspian coast and other popular vacation spots, pack markets to shop for new clothes and toys and congregate in homes for parties in defiance of government health guidelines.

There appears to be no respite in sight, as the country’s vaccine rollout lags, with only some 200,000 vaccine doses administered in the country of 84 million, according to the World Health Organization. COVAX, an international collaboration to deliver the vaccine equitably across the world, delivered its first shipment to Iran on Monday from the Netherlands containing 700,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses.

Health Minister Saeed Namaki ordered all parks, restaurants, bakeries, beauty salons, malls and bookstores closed on Wednesday in Tehran, the capital, and the other 250 cities and towns declared to be so-called “red zones,” which have the most severe restrictions in place and the highest virus positivity rate. Over 85% of the country now has the “red” or “orange” infection status, authorities said.

Earlier this week, Namaki warned of a further surge and said authorities had “lost control” over what he called “the rebellious COVID-19 dragon.” Wednesday’s infection count easily surpassed the previous record set Tuesday of 17,430 infections, marking the worst pandemic days since peaks reached over four months ago.

Officials have blamed the infection spike on gatherings and travel during the country’s biggest holiday, saying that compliance with health measures like social-distancing and mask-wearing noticeably plummeted over Nowruz. Authorities have done little to enforce the restrictions and repeatedly resisted a nationwide lockdown to salvage an economy already devastated by tough U.S. sanctions. A year into the pandemic, public fatigue and intransigence has deepened.

Wednesday’s case count brought the total number of infected in the outbreak to over 1.9 million, according to official figures. The health ministry reported 193 new virus deaths over the last 24 hours, raising the country’s death toll to 63,699 — the highest toll in the region.

Earlier this year, the country kicked off its coronavirus inoculation campaign, administering a limited number of Russian Sputnik V vaccines to medical workers.

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Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates contributed to this report.

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