NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The authorities in Iran, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East, reported a 58 per cent jump in confirmed infections to 388 on Friday (Feb 28) and a 30 per cent increase in deaths to 34, and the health minister warned of a "pretty difficult week" ahead.
But the authorities denied a BBC Persia report that the deaths totalled at least 210 - a vastly higher figure - based on the news service's own survey of Iranian hospitals.
The conflicting information punctuated the mixed messages and confusion that have been emanating from Iran since it disclosed the first coronavirus deaths a little over a week ago.
Confirmed infections and deaths have been rising steadily since then, most reported from Qom, a holy city and important Shiite pilgrimage site, but a growing number have emerged in Teheran and other parts of the country of 80 million.
Senior figures in the Teheran hierarchy initially sought to play down the coronavirus as a manageable problem, exaggerated by their foreign enemies as a scare tactic. But at least seven officials have been infected, including the government's top woman in the Cabinet and a health ministry deputy who has been leading the coronavirus response. Infections in neighbouring countries and even some as far as Canada, Norway and New Zealand have been traced to Iran.
On Thursday, Iranian authorities closed schools, cancelled Friday prayers and moved to restrict visitors from China, the original source of the infection, even as Iran seeks to maintain robust commercial relations with China, Iran's economic lifeline in the face of American sanctions.
"We will be facing a pretty difficult week," Health Minister Saeed Namaki, said in televised remarks on Friday.
Even though the health authorities have yet to assess fully the scope of infections in Iran, Mr Namaki said that "the trajectory we see suggests a main peak of the disease in the next week and next coming days". He exhorted the public "to please cooperate better, please help in reducing the contamination", and to refrain from travelling - an indication that many Iranians, ingrained with distrust of the government, had been ignoring its advice.
Mr Kianoush Jahanpour, a health ministry spokesman, was quoted by official media as saying that 143 additional cases and eight additional deaths had been confirmed since Thursday, when the ministry reported 245 total cases and 26 total deaths.
But official Iranian media dismissed the BBC Persian report of 210 total deaths, which was based on the news service's tally of victims reported independently by hospitals around Iran.
Many of those hospitals lack the test equipment required to confirm a coronavirus infection, raising questions about the accuracy of their reported figures. The health ministry has promised to sharply increase its testing capacity by next week.
The confusion also has been amplified by the suspiciously high death rate of 10 per cent in the official figures. The World Health Organisation has said the rate was closer to 2 per cent. So the official number of deaths in Iran reported so far, if accurate, suggests that the true number of infections may be higher.
Adding further to the confusion was the contradictory information coming from some local officials. Mr Nahid Khodakarami, the head of the health committee for Teheran's City Council, for example, was quoted in official media on Friday as saying "it's likely that between 10,000 and 15,000 people in Iran have been infected with coronavirus". How he arrived at the conclusion is unclear.
Contradictory news from Iran on the coronavirus also revealed an embarrassing error by the official media. Ms Elham Sheikhi, 23, a prominent athlete from Isfahan and member of the woman's national team in futsal, said on Friday in a video release that contrary to earlier announcements of her death from the coronavirus - including a condolence message from a sports federation - she was alive and healthy. Ms Sheikhi attributed the mistake to an erroneous assumption, based on the death of a Qom woman with the same age and name.
In Washington, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has helped lead the Trump administration's effort to isolate Iran economically, said in congressional testimony on Friday that he did not believe Iran was prepared to handle the coronavirus outbreak.
"Their health care infrastructure is not robust," Mr Pompeo said, "and to date, their willingness to share information about what's really going on inside of the Islamic Republic of Iran has not been robust." He said he was "very concerned". Administration critics contend its sanctions policy has contributed to a deterioration in Iran's public health resources.