iran virus masks
Iranians wearing face masks walk in Tehran on February 24.
Iran's Health Ministry says the number of reported deaths linked to a rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak in the country has increased by four to 19.

Ministry spokesman Kianush Dschahanpurat said on February 26 that a total of 139 people -- an increase of 44 from the previous day -- have tested positive for the virus in various parts of the country.

Jahanpour urged Iranians to avoid "nonessential travel," particularly to hard-hit areas of Iran.

He said 15 of the new COVID-19 cases surfaced in Qom Province; nine in Gilan; four in Tehran; three in Khuzestan; two each in Sistan and Baluchistan, Kohgiluyeh and Boyer-Ahmad, and Fars; and one each in Markazi, Kermanshah, Ardebil, Mazandaran, Lorestan, Semnan, and Hormozgan.

Meanwhile, President Hassan Rohani acknowledged that it may take "one, two, or three weeks" to get control of the virus in Iran, which has posted the highest death toll from the virus outside of China.

There was no plan to quarantine any district or city, Rohani said, according to a transcript posted on the Iranian presidency's website.

He also said that the issue "must not be turned into a weapon for our enemies to halt work and production in our country," a day after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanded that Iranian officials "tell the truth" about the outbreak, amid speculation that Tehran is underreporting its extent.

Comment: Unless the mortality rate is higher in Iran for some reason, then they're either underreporting cases, or there are a lot of people with the virus who haven't yet been correctly diagnosed.

In a statement on February 26, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) accused Iran's authorities of obstructing journalists trying to cover the epidemic in the country.

Journalists have been protesting on social media against the censorship, lies, and incompetence of the officials in charge, the Paris-based media freedom watchdog said.

Meanwhile, the head of the Iranian police force's cyberunit said 24 people accused of online rumor-mongering about the spread of the coronavirus had been arrested.

Vahid Majid said 118 Internet users were "talked to and let go" after receiving warnings, according to semiofficial news agency ISNA.

The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people globally, causing over 2,700 deaths, mainly in mainland China, where the virus emerged late last year.

In the rest of the world, there have been more than 40 deaths and over 2,700 cases.

Iran has been linked to most of the over 200 confirmed cases of the virus now spread across the Middle East.

Kuwait's Health Ministry said on February 26 that seven new cases have been diagnosed in the Persian Gulf nation among people who recently visited Iran.

Many countries in and outside the region have imposed restrictions on travel to and from Iran in an effort to curtail the disease's spread.

Kazakhstan, which has registered no cases of the coronavirus, on February 26 said it planned to suspend flights to and from Iran from March 1.

And Russia's consumer-protection agency, Rospotrebnadzor, advised citizens not to travel to Iran and two other hot spots - Italy and South Korea -- "until the epidemiological situation stabilized."