MOSCOW — After the Tajik president's sister died in a hospital reportedly of covid-19, her three sons attacked and beat up the country's health minister and a senior doctor, according to local media.

The reports, widespread in Tajik media, cast a rare spotlight on the sudden surge of covid-19 cases in this Central Asian country, which for a time had denied it had any infections. In a change, this latest surge seems to be hitting right at the top levels of the nation's leadership.

The incident came just weeks after the death of President Emomali Rahmon’s mother-in-law, also reportedly of covid-19. The government has faced criticism over its denials and inaction after the coronavirus spread in the country last year, and over its failure to stem a disastrous new wave of infections.

The latest spike, initially denied by authorities, has hit wealthy and influential families in Tajikistan. Radio Ozodi, the Tajik arm of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and online Tajik media reported that 10 members of the president’s family had contracted the coronavirus.

The spread of cases among the country’s elite raises questions about how the coronavirus is impacting ordinary citizens, amid criticisms that authorities have long understated the number of cases and deaths.

When covid-19 spread across the region early last year, health authorities for months denied that the illness was even present within Tajikistan’s borders.

In recent months, the government has pivoted to declaring it has won the battle against the coronavirus, even as reports of an increase in cases have multiplied on social media. When authorities denied the new surge until mid-June, some in Tajikistan took to posting their positive test results online, according to Eurasianet, while clinics reported dozens of positive cases daily.

Rahmon’s sister, Kurbanbi Rahmonova, 64, died in an elite government hospital on July 20, 10 days after she was hospitalized. There was no announcement on her official cause of death, but local media cited medical sources as saying she had died of covid-19.

The attack on Health Minister Jamoliddin Abdullozoda and hospital director Kholmuhammad Rahimzodaby by her sons was reported by local media, which cited officials in both the Interior and Health ministries. The two victims sustained serious injuries, and a number of other doctors had minor wounds from also being assaulted.

Deputy Health Minister Shodikhon Jamshed dismissed questions on whether Abdullozoda had been assaulted, while the presidency declined to answer any queries, according to Radio Free Europe.

Until the virus hit the presidential family, health officials had played down the new wave. Health Ministry spokesman Emomali Mirzoyev told Radio Ozodi on June 14 that although people had symptoms, their test results were negative.

“Many of these people, during the heat of early June, drank excessively cold and even ice-cold water and swam in cold waters. People who are going to the doctor are typically running high temperatures. But they do not have coronavirus,” he said.

Rahmon’s mother-in-law, Uzbekbi Asadulloeva, died July 5 at age 88. Her cause of death was not made public, but local media reported she had died of covid-19.

Last week, a prominent imam called for prayers for the president’s son-in-law, powerful businessman Shamsullo Sohibov, who also reportedly contracted the virus. Local media said he would be flown to Germany for treatment.

The president’s influential brother-in-law Hassan Asadullozoda, who runs a bank and owns an airline and many other companies, was also reported by local media to be in serious condition as a result of the virus.

Health officials last week reported more than 1,051 cases and 26 deaths in the past month, amid widespread skepticism over the accuracy of official statistics.

In a news conference Monday, First Deputy Health Minister Gafur Mukhsinzoda blamed the latest wave of infections on the delta variant, which he said probably entered the country from Russia.

Speaking three days after health authorities denied that any case of the delta variant had been registered, he said that the virus was spreading much more quickly than it did in 2020 but that the situation was not critical enough to warrant a lockdown.

No explanation was offered for the absence of the health minister himself at the news conference. Asked about doubts over the accuracy of covid-19 statistics, Mukhsinzoda said all countries had problems in their counting of cases.

The United States on Monday delivered 1.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine to Tajikistan. Tajik health authorities say 460,000 of the country’s 9.3 million people have been vaccinated.