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UN begins home food drops for Gaza's needy to stem virus

A U.N. aid agency Tuesday began delivering food to the homes of impoverished Palestinians instead of making them pick up such parcels at crowded distribution centers — part of an attempt to prevent a mass outbreak of the new coronavirus in the densely populated Gaza Strip.

As the virus continued to spread across the Middle East, Iran, the hardest-hit country in the region, reported 141 new deaths, pushing the death toll closer to 3,000 people.

In Israel, the military said its chief of staff was being placed into protective quarantine. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said it would pay medical expenses for anyone infected with the virus.

Medical personnel wearing protective gear checks identifications before a COVID-19 test part of the government's measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus in the orthodox city of Bnei Brak ,a Tel Aviv suburb , Israel, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.(AP PhotoAriel Schalit)

In Gaza, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees has for decades provided staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of the territory's 2 million people. Under the old system, those eligible lined up at crowded distribution centers four times a year to pick up their aid parcels. Starting on Tuesday, the agency began making home deliveries.

"We assessed that tens of thousands of people will pour into the food distribution centers and this is very dangerous,” said Adnan Abu Hasna, the agency's spokesman in Gaza.

Some 4,000 deliveries were made Tuesday, with an estimated 70,000 others to be made over the next three weeks, he said. Drivers on three-wheel motorcycles dropped off the food, calling people out of their homes, confirming their identities and leaving the bags outside. The agency instructed people to stay 2 meters ( about 6 feet) from the delivery men to minimize the risk of infection.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish young man is tested for COVID-19 by medical personnel wearing protective gear as part of the government's measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus in the orthodox city of Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb, Israel, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP PhotoAriel Schalit)

“This makes it easy for us,” said Manal Ziara, a resident of Shati refugee camp in west Gaza City. “The old mechanism causes crowding and touching that help the virus spread."

Only 10 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Gaza, whose borders have been largely sealed by Israel and Egypt since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized the territory in 2007.

However, there's only a small number of available tests. International officials fear the virus could quickly spread and overwhelm an already gutted health system.

Palestinian workers distribute food supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to a house in the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The United Nations has resumed food deliveries to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia or death.

Particularly hard hit has been Iran, home to 80 million people. Iran’s state TV reported 141 new deaths Tuesday, pushing the death toll to 2,898. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said there are now 44,606 confirmed cases, including 3,703 in critical condition.

In Saudi Arabia, King Salman said the government will pay for the treatment of all coronavirus patients, including visitors and foreign residents. Saudi Arabia has more than 1,500 confirmed cases of the virus and eight recorded deaths. It has sealed off three major cities and imposed a nighttime curfew across the country, as well as suspended flights and the yearlong Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca.

Palestinian workers distribute food supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for impoverished refugee families after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus, in the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Gaza, which is blockaded by its neighbors Israel and Egypt, has only detected a few cases of coronavirus, with all of them confined to quarantine centers. But international officials fear the virus could quickly spread in the densely populated area, whose overburdened health system is not equipped to deal with a large outbreak. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

The Israeli military, meanwhile, announced that its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, had entered quarantine after learning that he attended a meeting last week with an officer who was infected. It said Kochavi, who has no symptoms, would remain in isolation until the weekend.

The army also said that roughly 600 troops were being deployed to assist Israeli police in enforcing tight restrictions on movement Israel has recorded over 4,800 cases, with 17 deaths.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, workers sanitized the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, to protect those who visit the site.

Palestinian workers distribute food supplies from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for impoverished refugee families after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus, at the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. Gaza, which is blockaded by its neighbors Israel and Egypt, has only detected a few cases of coronavirus, with all of them confined to quarantine centers. But international officials fear the virus could quickly spread in the densely populated area, whose overburdened health system is not equipped to deal with a large outbreak. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

With the Passover holiday approaching next week, prayer notes tucked between the wall’s stones were removed using gloves and disposable wooden tools. The notes, which are removed twice a year, were collected in special bags and will be buried with other sacred papers.

Associated Press writers Aya Batrawy in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Audrey Horowitz in Tel Aviv, Israel and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed reporting.

Palestinian workers load food supplies distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The United Nations has resumed food deliveries to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus. UNRWA, provides staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of Gaza’s 2 million people. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

A Palestinian worker carries sacks of flour distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for poor refugee families, at the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The United Nations has resumed food deliveries to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus. UNRWA, provides staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of Gaza’s 2 million people. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Palestinian workers unloads food supplies distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for poor refugee families, at the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The United Nations has resumed food deliveries to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus. UNRWA, provides staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of Gaza’s 2 million people. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Palestinian workers unloads sacks of flour distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for poor refugee families, at the Sheikh Redwan neighborhood of Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The United Nations has resumed food deliveries to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus. UNRWA, provides staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of Gaza’s 2 million people. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)

Palestinian security police, wearing protective gear, patole on the street in the northern Gaza Strip, Monday, March 30, 2020. (AP PhotoHatem Moussa)

Palestinian workers load sacks of flour distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) on a tuk-tuk to distribute to poor refugee families at Sheikh Redwan neighborhood in Gaza City, Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The United Nations has resumed food deliveries to thousands of impoverished families in the Gaza Strip after a three-week delay caused by fears of the coronavirus. UNRWA, the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, provides staples like flour, rice, oil and canned foods to roughly half of Gaza’s 2 million people. (AP PhotoAdel Hana)