New Turkey Virus Figures Confirm Fears 11/29 10:24
ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- When Turkey changed the way it reports daily COVID-19
infections, it confirmed what medical groups and opposition parties have long
suspected --- that the country is faced with an alarming surge of cases that is
fast exhausting the Turkish health system.
In an about-face, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government this week
resumed reporting all positive coronavirus tests --- not just the number of
patients being treated for symptoms --- pushing the number of daily cases to
above 30,000. With the new data, the country jumped from being one of the
least-affected countries in Europe to one of the worst-hit.
That came as no surprise to the Turkish Medical Association, which has been
warning for months that the government's previous figures were concealing the
graveness of the spread and that the lack of transparency was contributing to
the surge. The group maintains, however, that the ministry's figures are still
low compared with its estimate of at least 50,000 new infections per day.
No country can report exact numbers on the spread of the disease since many
asymptomatic cases go undetected, but the previous way of counting made Turkey
look relatively well-off in international comparisons, with daily new cases far
below those reported in European countries including Italy, Britain and France.
That changed Wednesday as Turkey's daily caseload almost quadrupled from
about 7,400 to 28,300.
The country's hospitals are overstretched, medical staff are burned out and
contract tracers, who were once credited for keeping the outbreak under check,
are struggling to track transmissions, Sebnem Korur Fincanci, who heads the
association, told The Associated Press.
"It's the perfect storm," said Fincanci, whose group has come under attack
from Erdogan and his nationalist allies for questioning the government's
figures and its response to the outbreak.
Even though the health minister has put the ICU bed occupancy rate at 70%,
Ebru Kiraner, who heads the Istanbul-based Intensive Care Nurses' Association,
says intensive care unit beds in Istanbul's hospitals are almost full, with
doctors scrambling to find room for critically ill patients.
There is a shortage of nurses and the existing nursing staff is exhausted,
"ICU nurses have not been able to return to their normal lives since March,"
she told the AP. "Their children have not seen their mask-less faces in months."
Erdogan said, however, there was "no problem" concerning the hospitals'
capacities. He blamed the surge on the public's failure to wear masks, which is
mandatory, and to abide by social distancing rules.
Demonstrating the seriousness of the outbreak, Turkey last month suspended
leave for health care workers and temporarily banned resignations and early
retirements during the pandemic. Similar bans were also put in place for three
months in March.
The official daily COVID-19 deaths have also steadily risen to record
numbers, reaching 13,373 on Saturday with 182 new deaths, in a reversal of
fortune for the country that had been praised for managing to keep fatalities
low. But those record numbers remain disputed too.
Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu said 186 people had died of infectious
diseases in the city on Nov. 22 --- a day on which the government announced
just 139 COVID-19 deaths for the whole of the country. The mayor also said
around 450 burials are taking place daily in the city of 15 million compared
with the average 180-200 recorded in November the previous year.
"We can only beat the outbreak through a process that is transparent," said
Imamoglu, who is from Turkey's main opposition party. "Russia and Germany have
announced a high death toll. Did Germany lose its shine? Did Russia collapse?"
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca has rejected Imamoglu's claims, saying: "I
want to underline that all of the figures I am providing are accurate."
Last week, Erdogan announced a series of restrictions in a bid to contain
the contagion without impacting the already weakened economy or business
activity. Opposition parties denounced them as "half-baked." He introduced
curfews for the first time since June, but limited them to weekend evenings,
closed down restaurants and cafes except for takeout services and restricted
the opening hours of malls, shops and hairdressers.
Both Fincanci and Kiraner said the measures don't go far enough to contain
"We need a total lockdown of at least two weeks, if not four weeks which
science considers to be the most ideal amount," Fincanci said.
Koca has said that the number of seriously ill patients and fatalities is on
the rise and said some cities including Istanbul and Izmir are experiencing
their "third peak." Turkey would wait, however, for two weeks to see the
results of the weekend curfews and other restrictions before considering
stricter lockdowns, he said.
Meanwhile, the country has reached an agreement to receive 50 million doses
of the vaccine developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company SinoVac and hopes to
begin administering it to medical staff and the chronically ill next month. It
is also in talks to purchase the vaccine developed by Pfizer in cooperation
with the BioNTech pharmaceutical company. A Turkish-developed vaccine is
scheduled to be ready to use in April.
Erdogan said he had also spoken with Russia's president, Vladimir Putin,
over the possibility of procuring a vaccine developed by that country.