The two coronavirus variants first detected in South Africa and India are still stalking southern Iranian cities. Meanwhile, it has been confirmed that cases of “black fungus” infections have been found among Iranians who recovered from Covid-19.
Ahead of the presidential election on June 18, Iran’s National Coronavirus Taskforce has warned about the potential risks of large gatherings. The body is poised to impose fresh travel restrictions in a bid to prevent a “fifth wave” of infections.
On Saturday, May 22 Iran began to vaccinate people aged over 70. But there have been complaints about disarray at vaccination centers, while Health Ministry officials promise the vaccination drive will pick up speed once Iranian-made vaccines are introduced in early summer.
Electricity outages across Iran have not only have created problems for the people in general but they have also created problems in using oxygen in hospitals, treatment centers and even homes.
Black Fungus Putting Patients and Health Systems Under Strain
In recent months thousands of Indian Covid-19 patients have been hospitalized not only due to Covid-19 but an outbreak of mucormycosis: a serious but rare infection commonly known as “black fungus”.
The disease is caused by a group of molds called mucormycetes. It generally affects people who have pre-existing health problems such as diabetes, or take medicines that lower the body’s ability to fight germs and sickness. Mucormycosis commonly affects the sinuses or the lungs after spores are inhaled from the air, and can also occur on the skin after a cut, burn, or other type of skin injury.
Indian officials says that as of May 24, 9,000 cases of this infection have been confirmed in India, generally among those who have recovered from Covid-19. At least 90 people had died from related complications in the last week of May.
Cases of this infection have been registered in Iran as well. On May 26, Dr. Masoud Mardani, a specialist in infectious diseases and a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee, tried to assure people that widely-used Covid-19 medications are safe.
“Fungus infection follows using dexamethasone or corticosteroid,” he said, “which these days are used across the world as anti-inflammatory drugs for Covid-19 patients.” He also said black fungus is not currently widespread in Iran.
The Dangers of Unpredictable Power Outages
With the onset of warmer weather in Iran and the increase in electricity usage for various purposes, including air conditioners, multiple power outages at all hours have plagued some Iranian cities. Hospitals and medical centers have not been spared.
This poses a serious risk to Covid-19 patients who are on ventilators. One person on oxygen is already reported to have died during a blackout. Dr. Ali Jamalian, president of Tehran’s Shahid Lavasani Hospital, said power outages in hospitals were occurring without warning and said the consequences for patients could be “irreversible”.
“When it comes to power outages Health Minister must defend us,” he said, “because it has created problems for hospitals across the country, like the disgraceful event a while ago when a patient died because the electricity went out.”
Hospitals must be forewarned if the power is likely to go out, said Dr. Hossein Kermanpour, director general of the Iranian Medical Council’s public relations office. “If the Ministry of Energy believes the power outages are going to continue,” he said, “then it must work with hospitals, private or state-run, so that necessary preparations are made.”
People with Covid-19 who are using ventilators at home are also at risk. These patients have no immediate access to doctors and nurses, and are also less likely to have backup generators of the sort installed at many Iranian hospitals.
The damage caused by power outages is touching other parts of Iran’s coronavirus response a well. On May 26, Dr. Mostafa Ghanei, chairman of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Scientific Committee, reported that power outages have cost millions of dollars to the project to develop domestic vaccines.
“In producing coronavirus vaccines,” Dr. Ghanei said, “if the machine stops working, the product is useless and millions of dollars are lost. There must be emergency backup so that there won’t be so much as a few moments of interruption. This makes the production of vaccine in Iran very expensive.”
General Vaccination: Promises, Promises
Last winter, the Health Ministry announced several times that general vaccination would start “soon”. But the promised start date was soon kicked down the road, first to March, then to April and, finally, to June. No domestically-produced vaccine has completed trials yet, but there have been claims inoculation with Iranian-made vaccines will begin in September.
The most recent promise was made last week Health Minister Saeed Namaki, who said general vaccination would start in June. He added that not only imported vaccines but also an Iranian-made vaccine would be used in the program.
Then on May 23, Deputy Health Minister Ghasem Jan-Babaei said that the vaccine set to be used is CovIran-Barekat, adding that the health ministry had already received the first batch of doses, although he did not specify how many.
According to official announcements, around 1.5 million health workers and members of high-risk groups have been inoculated in Iran. In phase two, which is due to be completed by late July, everyone aged over 60 – and those aged over 18 who suffer from health complications that put them at particularly high risk – will be offered the jab. The Health Ministry has also separately announced that the vaccination of teachers will start in late July.
As of now, the Islamic Republic has succeeded in importing 5.6 million doses of vaccine. Of this, close to 3.5 million doses have so far been used. More than three million people have received their first shot and close to half a million have been inoculated twice.
Reports of Disarray and Preferential Treatment
On Saturday, May 22, the vaccination of people aged over 70 got underway. Many of them were accompanied to clinics by family members and this led to chaos and overcrowding at some vaccination centers. Many have protested that the long queues and close contact in waiting rooms will contribute to the spread of the virus.
Another controversy emerged last week after it was reported that the ministry had given vaccine priority to 3,000 employees of Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) when it had previously been said that reporters would be vaccinated in the third phase.
“The IRIB has numerous employees,” said taskforce spokesman Alireza Raeesi, “but the National Coronavirus Taskforce has decided to vaccinate those involved in covering the [presidential] election.”
This preferential treatment of IRIB employees has been widely criticized. One complaint levelled at the taskforce was that if giving priority to reporters made sense, why have journalists working for for non-governmental news outlets been denied the same privilege?
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the daily official statistics announced by the health ministry, a total of 1,390 patients lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending May 27. With 251 deaths , May 24 saw the highest number of fatalities of the week.
At the week’s end, 4,475 Covid-19 patients were being treated in ICUs and the official death toll of Covid-19 since the pandemic started drew closer to 80,000.
“Red” Cities Near-Triple in a Week
At the week’s end the health ministry announced that eight Iranian cities are currently on red alert, 233 are orange, and 207 are yellow. No city in Iran is currently on blue alert: the lowest level, whereby coronavirus infection rates are low but not at zero.
The week before, just three cities were on red alert. One reason for the surge was an increase in infections with coronavirus the variants first detected in India and South Africa, in the southern provinces of Sistan and Baluchistan, Bushehr and Hormozgan.
On May 22, the Islamic Republic’s Ports and Shipping Organization confirmed that the variant from India had reached the port of Chabahar on the coast of the Gulf of Oman. Meanwhile, the district mayor of Nikshahr in Sistan and Baluchistan warned that people in his district had become so used to coronavirus that they no longer attended medical centers even are infected. He added that medics have been left with unused doses of vaccine that were set aside to inoculate the elderly.
In the southern port of Bandar Abbas, city governor Azizollah Konari announced that 32 villages and five towns in the county had been quarantined for a week due to the increase in the number of Covid-19 patients.
Tehran is on an orange state of alert and, according to Nahid Khoda Karami, chairwoman of the City Council’s Health Committee, the number officially-recorded Covid-19 fatalities since the pandemic started is now close to 31,000. According to the Ministry of Health, so far 79,384 Iranians have lost their lives to Covid-19 but statistics announced by local officials leave no doubt that the real number of fatalities is much higher.
Presidential Election and the Danger of a Fifth Coronavirus Surge
The fourth wave of coronavirus in Iran has subsided but, given the presidential election scheduled for June 18 and an expected increase in travel during upcoming holidays, numerous health officials have warned of an impending fifth wave.
One of them is Abbas Aghazadeh, an official of Iran’s Medical Council, who said another spike is very likely: “Both the Medical Council and the Ministry of Health have warned about this,” he said, “and have announced that considering the likelihood of campaign gatherings in the coming days and weeks, the danger of a surge is very high.”
He added that two factors make this likely increase in cases more dangerous: coronavirus variants from India and South Africa, and the utter exhaustion of the medical staff and health workers who only recently dealt with the fourth peak.
The National Coronavirus Taskforce has accordingly announced that traveling between provinces is banned from June 1 to June 7. Past experience, however, shows that these bans are often ignored and not adequately enforced by the police.