At least 17 medics in Egypt's main cancer hospital have been quarantined after testing positive for the coronavirus, officials said Saturday, raising fears the pandemic could prey on health facilities in the Arab world's most populous country.
Egypt has reported around 1,000 confirmed cases and 66 fatalities from the global pandemic. Authorities have closed schools and mosques, banned public gatherings and imposed a nighttime curfew to prevent the virus from spreading among the population of 100 million, a fifth of whom live in the densely-populated capital, Cairo.
Dr. Hatem Abu el-Kassem, the director of the National Cancer Institute, said three doctors and 12 nurses tested positive for the virus. He said all other health workers at the facility, which is affiliated with Cairo University and treats hundreds of cancer patients every day, would be tested. The university later said a total of 17 health workers tested positive.
The institute will be partly closed for three days to be sterilized, with only the emergency ward remaining open.
Several doctors took to social media to criticize the institute's leadership for not taking restrictive measures earlier.
Maggie Mousa, an anesthesiologist at the institute, tweeted that one of her close friends was infected. She accused top officials of mismanagement and negligence for not imposing restrictions after the first case was detected more than a week ago.
"They refused to take any measures to protect her and isolate the institute," she said.
Cairo University said it has established a fact-finding mission to investigate the measures taken by the institute to prevent the virus from spreading.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems, including cancer patients.
As the number of infections has grown to more than 1.1 million worldwide, the exposure of personnel at health facilities is of growing concern.
More than a million people have been infected worldwide and more than 50,000 have died from the COVID-19 illness caused by the virus. More than 200,000 have recovered, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University.
Egypt's Health Ministry reported a spike in cases on Friday, with 120 new infections and eight fatalities, its highest one-day tally since the first case was reported in February.
The government has not yet imposed the kind of total lockdown seen in other countries in the region, but officials have said there are plans for stricter measures if needed.
Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in a statement Saturday that many projects the government was planning to open this year would be postponed until 2021 because of the pandemic. They include the Grand Egyptian Museum that's been under construction for over a decade and intended to showcase Egypt's ancient treasures as well as the country's new administrative capital in the desert outside of Cairo.
The worst coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East is in Iran, where the Health Ministry on Saturday reported another 158 deaths. That brings the overall number of fatalities there to 3,452, amid 55,743 confirmed cases. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said more than 4,000 patients are in serious condition.