The daily number of coronavirus cases registered in Armenia reached a new record high on Friday, with Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian saying that his country now has a higher infection rate than neighboring Iran hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The situation with the coronavirus epidemic in the country is continuing to deteriorate,” he said.
Even so, Pashinian made clear that his government is still not planning to re-impose a nationwide lockdown. He said it will continue instead to promote and enforce social distancing and hygiene rules set by the health authorities.
The Ministry of Health said in the morning that 460 people tested positive for coronavirus in the past 24 hours, up from the previous daily high of 452 cases reported on May 24. It said a total of 1,100 of coronavirus tests were carried out on Thursday.
The total number of COVID-19 cases registered in the country of about 3 million thus reached 8,676. The ministry also reported 7 new fatalities which raised the official death toll from the epidemic to 120.
“I want to stress that in terms of the number of cases per 1 million people we have already surpassed Iran and France and are practically on a par with Russia,” Pashinian told a daily news briefing in Yerevan. “At this pace, we will reach Italy’s indicator.”
“The reason for this situation is widespread non-compliance with anti-epidemic rules and our citizens’ failure to take epidemiological alarms seriously enough,” he said, again calling on people to wear face masks, practice social distancing and disinfect their hands.
Armenians are obliged to wear masks in shops, buses, taxis and all other enclosed public spaces. They must also possess masks when walking in the streets or parks.
The Armenian police claim to have fined or reprimanded in recent days hundreds of people not abiding by this requirement. For their part, sanitary authorities have ordered one-day closures of many restaurants, shops and other businesses flouting other safety rules.
Critics of the Armenian government are skeptical about the effectiveness of this strategy of containing the virus. They say that only a renewed lockdown can slow and ultimately stop the spread of the disease.
Pashinian again spoke out against re-imposing lockdown restrictions now, however. “I hope that there will be such changes in our social behavior that we won’t have to revert to a strict lockdown,” he said. “None of us wants such a scenario.”
“I want to again assure that … if Armenia’s citizens follow the proposed rules -- namely, wear masks, practice social distancing and periodically disinfect hands and don’t touch their faces with unwashed hands -- we will very quickly have a drop in new coronavirus cases and reduce them to zero. We will follow this path as long as possible,” added the prime minister.
The government had issued stay-at-home orders and shut down most nonessential businesses in late March. But it began relaxing those restrictions already in mid-April. The daily numbers of new COVID-19 infections and deaths have increased significantly since then.
Pashinian dismissed arguments that his government has ignored World Health Organization warnings against a quick lifting of lockdowns. “The World Health Organization is guided by health standards, while Armenia, like many other countries, also has socioeconomic, financial and security needs,” he said. “Many countries of the world are lifting lockdowns despite not meeting those standards.”
The crisis is putting a growing strain on Armenia’s underfunded healthcare system. Faced with the rising number of coronavirus cases, the health authorities stopped late last week hospitalizing or isolating infected people who show mild symptoms of the disease or none at all.
Officials have also warned that intensive care units of the Armenian hospitals treating COVID-19 patients are running out of vacant hospital beds. Arman Hovakimian, the director of the largest of those hospitals, said on Friday that 95 percent of intensive care beds at the Surp Grigor Lusavorich Medical Center are already occupied.
Health Minister Arsen Torosian said on Thursday that the authorities will set up 100 more such beds at Surp Grigor Lusavorich and another Yerevan hospital over the next month.
Torosian also signaled a shortage of medical personnel, urging more Armenian doctors to join their colleagues fighting against the virus.
“This is especially true for anesthesiologists and resuscitation specialists,” he wrote on Facebook. “We need them the most because there are now more than 350 patients in a severe or critical condition and in need of their care.”