The first two cases of coronavirus were reported in the densely populated Gaza Strip on Sunday as fears mount that the pandemic may spread through some of the most vulnerable populations in the Middle East.
An outbreak could spread rapidly in the 140-square-mile piece of land occupied by Palestinians bordering the Mediterranean Sea between Egypt and Israel that’s occupied by some 2 million people.
The Gaza Strip has already seen public markets, schools, and event halls closed over the past two weeks to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus, according to Reuters.
Hamas, the group designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. that runs the territory, said last week that it would allow patients only requiring urgent medical care to travel to Egypt or Israel for treatment.
Abdelnasser Soboh, director of the World Health Organization’s Gaza office, told the Associated Press on Sunday the territory only has 62 ventilators, with all but 15 already in use. He estimates the territory needs 50 to 100 more to address an outbreak, but that Gaza’s hospitals can handle the first 100 cases if they come in gradually.
“If there is a spread to hundreds, this will cause a challenge to the health care system,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, announced a 14-day curfew, ordering everyone to stay at home except for security forces, medics, and food sellers. There have been 59 reported COVID-19 cases in the West Bank, including 17 who recovered.
Israel has reported 945 cases, the highest number in the region outside Iran, but the uptick appears to be linked to increased testing. The Health Ministry, which has tested more than 17,000 people, has reported one death and says only 20 patients are in serious condition.
Several countries in the Middle East have sealed their borders and ordered the closure of nonessential businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19, but the number of cases has grown.
In Saudi Arabia, 119 new cases of COVID-19 were reported on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 511, Al Arabiya reported.
The worst outbreak in the region is in Iran, where the government has reported more than 21,600 cases and 1,685 deaths. The country’s health minister has said that a person is dying of coronavirus every 10 minutes as caseloads continue to rise and hospitals reach a breaking point.
Neighboring Iraq has extended a country-wide curfew until March 28. It has the highest virus death toll in the region after Iran, with 20 fatalities among 233 confirmed cases.
In war-torn countries such as Libya, Yemen and Syria, officials have imposed containment measures but medical resources are still lacking.
In Yemen, for instance, the country has faced cholera outbreaks that have infected more than 2 million people and killed nearly 4,000 since 2016.
The World Health Organization has identified only two facilities in the country of 29 million people for quarantine and diagnosis of the coronavirus.
Fox News’ Hollie McKay and the Associated Press contributed to this report.