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Deaths in Iran from the novel coronavirus have topped 24,000, the health ministry said Saturday, blaming reduced use of face masks by the public.

Figures “show that the use of is declining, and at the same time we see a rise in daily infections and hospitalisations,” ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said in televised remarks.

“Let us not forget that the current condition of the virus reflects our observance of health protocols and mask usage,” she said.

Since late February, Iran has been battling the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of COVID-19.

Infections and deaths have