Tehran, Iran – Iran is bracing for a sixth major wave of COVID-19 infections even as its nationwide vaccination efforts have accelerated in recent weeks.
Health Minister Bahram Einollahi said on Tuesday it is “certain” the worst-hit country in the Middle East will face another surge in cases next month.
“But we’re fully prepared to fight the disease in the sixth wave, and hospitals are now ready in terms of medicine and oxygen equipment so we can fight it,” he said.
The virus has so far killed close to 125,000 people while more than 5.8 million cases have been reported in Iran since February 2020, according to health ministry figures.
Daily deaths are significantly down from the peak of 709 registered in late August, but still more than 150 Iranians are falling victim to the virus as more than 10,000 new cases are detected each day.
Iranian authorities had previously faced criticism over the slow pace of imports of vaccines, but tens of millions of doses have been imported in the past two months, the vast majority of which are China’s Sinopharm shot, along with AstraZeneca shots.
But even as the vaccine rollout has gathered pace, the health minister said authorities were a long way from inoculating most of Iran’s 85 million population.
About 75 percent of the target population has now received at least one dose, Einollahi said, adding that only about 35 percent has been fully vaccinated.
While vaccines are now readily available in most places across the country, vaccine hesitancy appears to have become a concern. Polling agency ISPA found last month that 14.2 percent of adult Iranians say they have zero inclination to be vaccinated. The most commonly cited reasons were a lack of trust in the jabs and fear of side effects.
The definitive warning about a sixth wave of the pandemic comes as health authorities are planning more gradual reopenings and further lifting restrictions on social life.
The health ministry has proposed a “smart management platform” that would keep restrictions in place only for those who are not vaccinated and do not adhere to necessary health protocols.
While details are yet to be finalised, officials have said activities can go back to normal if service providers, service receivers, and venues all follow protocols closely.
Vaccines will not be mandatory for the general population, according to officials, but some will have no choice but to get inoculated. Government workers in Tehran, who have been informed that they will not be able to continue working remotely, have to receive at least one dose by next week to be able to go back to the office.
Schools reopened in late September, with most classes being conducted remotely online, but officials are planning to allow students in schools as part of a multistep plan that begins next week. Students aged between 12 and 18 are now being called to receive jabs, but vaccination is not mandatory.
A football match between the national teams of Iran and South Korea in Tehran was held behind closed doors last week despite previous announcements that supporters would be allowed to attend, but league matches that are already under way are soon expected to accept vaccinated fans.
Tehran’s massive Friday prayers, which have been on hold for 20 months, are also slated to be revived this week.