Turkey’s weekly COVID-19 cases rise nationwide despite measures
Gone is blue, a color signifying the low-risk provinces, from the updated map of the Health Ministry showing the distribution of coronavirus cases, Trend reports citing Daily Sabah. The southeastern province of Shirnak still has the lowest number in terms of average weekly cases, but the situation looks grim in the new map for March 20-26 released late Tuesday. The map, made public shortly after the country announced 37,303 daily cases, the highest since the pandemic started taking its toll in Turkey one year ago, comes in the wake of tightened restrictions to curb the outbreak.
The map, which discloses the number of average cases per population of 100,000, shows that none of the provinces recorded a drop from the week before March 20. Istanbul, the country’s most crowded metropolis, Canakkale in the west, Kirklareli in the northwest, Malatya in the east and northern province of Kastamonu had the highest rises in weekly cases. Van, Shirnak, Siirt and Shanliurfa in the east, along with the western province of Burdur, recorded the lowest rise in weekly cases.
Overall, the number of cases per 100,000 was between 100-200 in 10 provinces, between 50 and 100 in 19 provinces and up to 50 in 52 provinces.
In Istanbul, the number of weekly cases rose to around 401, from 251 in the previous week while it was 184 for Ankara which had only around 107 cases per 100,000 before.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Monday that weekend curfews partially lifted recently would return to their original state, a 56-hour lockdown from Friday to early Monday in high-risk provinces, amid a surge in the cases. The restriction has returned only a few weeks after the beginning of the normalization process that eased restrictions based on the number of cases in each of the 81 provinces. A full nationwide weekend lockdown will also be implemented in weeks, throughout the upcoming Ramadan Bayram, also known as Eid al-Fitr, an Islamic holy month. On Tuesday, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca told reporters in Parliament that new variants of the coronavirus, which officials have blamed for the spike in infections, had now been seen in every province. "Currently, the rate of the mutations in Turkey has reached some 75%. In some provinces, it is at around 50%-55%, but there are provinces where it is at 95%," Koca said. Most were of the variant first identified in Britain, with much smaller numbers of those first identified in South Africa and Brazil, Koca said. "We must show a bit more effort in protecting those in risk groups and limiting close contact. Until when? At least until vaccination is finished," he said.
Experts also blame the increase in infections on a more “mobile” community, particularly during Saturdays when curfews were lifted. They also warn against false confidence spreading among the public that the outbreak is less severe now, as restrictions were eased. As a matter of fact, though the cases proliferated, hospitalizations are less common now.
Shirnak, though lost its status as “blue province,” still holds the coveted title of the province with the least number of cases, with around 13 cases per 100,000. The province’s governor, Ali Hamza Pehlivan, told reporters on Wednesday that they took all measures to curb the outbreak but attributed the decline in “health check sweeps.” “We ran medical checks on 520,000 people,” the governor of the province with a population of 540,000 people, said.
“Whenever we come across a case, we set a wide perimeter in that location. Our crews meticulously scan the area and run tests if needed,” he said. “This is the result of a collective work. We focused on possible locations of clusters, like Habur (a border crossing with Iraq) where we set up a field hospital in the early days of the pandemic. We still have a crew there and scanned everyone going and coming through the crossing. The border still operates with limited traffic, with truck drivers, who use the crossing most, are obliged to leave the trucks once crossed to the Iraqi side, handing them over to another driver in the other country. Arrivals are subject to a strict sanitation process. The province also has about 100 contact tracing crews, who work to find possible contacts of positive patients and check upon patients self-isolated at home. More crews, consisting of inspectors, regularly tour the province to check whether the public complies with rules, like mandatory masks, social distancing and hygiene.
“We have to be alert all the time. We should not be relaxed. Whenever new figures about the cases are unveiled, we repeat our warnings to residents that they should not give up measures. This is something we can achieve only if we act together,” the governor said.
Kirikkale, a central province neighboring Ankara, which has 114 cases per 100,000 people, follows a different approach toward the outbreak. Local authorities have been using the help of children to raise awareness about the outbreak and ensure everyone complies with measures. Local education authorities in “very high risk” province send empty report cards to students, with a list of questions about whether the family of students complies with rules. Thus, students take note of compliance with rules in their household. Authorities hope that children would force parents to be more sensitive to rules with the practice. Children fill report cards every two weeks, answering questions about whether the family followed hygiene rules, admitted guests or visited others, a possible infection risk. Children who properly fill the cards are given “COVID-19 detective” badges.
A new vaccine
In the meantime, Turkey plans to introduce a new vaccine to its citizens this week. A shipment of 2.8 million doses of Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine recently arrived in the country and will be available upon request of citizens. The mass vaccination drive currently continues with the inactive vaccine CoronaVac.
The Health Ministry will run an analysis of the new vaccine before it is provided to the public. The country plans to acquire more doses and this month, it is expected that the total number of doses would reach 4.5 million. It also signed a deal with Pfizer-BioNtech for 30 million doses. The ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that despite problems in vaccine supplies in other countries, Turkey was among the top five countries with the best access to vaccine and their application.