The number of people who test positive for the coronavirus daily may be alarming for the population, but authorities and experts have offered reassurance that the pandemic is not as bad as the data indicates.
Turkey breaks records in the number of cases almost every day now but unlike the early days of the pandemic, which made its foray into the country in March 2020, hospitals are not filled with patients in need of intensive care. This is linked to omicron, the variant blamed for skyrocketing cases, which, at the same time, apparently causes fewer hospitalizations. Indeed, the virus is more "flu" like for the fully vaccinated, according to a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board.
Professor Deniz Odabaş told Sabah newspaper that omicron is indeed “a strain of COVID-19 closest to flu. We expect the upcoming spring will be a better time for us in terms of the pandemic. Then, we will see that it would only take one dose a year to overcome the virus."
She added that the fatality rate due to omicron is less than one-fifth of the delta variant. Odabaş, however, emphasized that omicron was still a danger for the unvaccinated and those who missed one or more doses of vaccines. “We lose almost a planeload of people every day,” she noted.
On Monday, Turkey reported 93,261 new cases and 182 deaths, while the Health Ministry announced that more than 435,000 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were conducted and 93,438 others recovered. Also on Monday, the number of vaccine doses administered exceeded 141.9 million.
Overall, the rate of two-dose vaccination among the population at the age of 18 and above exceeded 84.4%. After the announcement, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted that Turkey has surpassed a difficult phase in its fight against the virus. “Life is close to normal thanks to individual measures we take. Though the pandemic still tops our agenda, rest assured this will change soon and remember the role of vaccination to reach this point,” he said.
Odabaş urged the public not to abandon those "individual measures," which include protective masks, social distancing and hygiene. Although Turkey lifted almost all restrictions, including curfews, personal measures remain in place. She also called on the public to reduce mobility. “Schools will reopen next week and families who traveled for a holiday should return a few days before the start of next semester so that they can monitor their children and themselves and send them to school if they show no symptoms,” she said.
Children, older people and those with chronic illnesses are now among the most vulnerable groups amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Health Ministry says elderly and unvaccinated people constitute the majority of COVID-19 patients, but cases among children are also climbing, according to experts. The fact that the omicron variant shares similar symptoms with influenza, also on the rise, poses challenges for health care workers.
Professor Alper Şener, another member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, says the majority of patients in Turkey were either unvaccinated or those without booster shots. “Vaccines prevent fatalities by 99% and hospitalizations by 90%,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Tuesday.
Şener says 20 out of every 100 PCR tests were positive. “Most of the people suspected of having COVID-19 apply to hospitals with complaints of shortness of breath, fever and cough,” he said, noting similarities between symptoms of the flu and the coronavirus.
The flu itself is not something to underestimate. Influenza has returned to Europe at a faster-than-expected rate since mid-December after almost disappearing last year, raising concerns about a prolonged "twindemic" with COVID-19 amid some doubts about the effectiveness of flu vaccines.
Lockdowns, mask-wearing and social distancing that have become the norm in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic, which knocked out the flu last winter, temporarily eradicating a virus that globally kills about 650,000 per annum, according to European Union figures. But that has now changed as countries adopt less strict measures to fight COVID-19 due to widespread vaccination.
The return of the virus could be the start of an unusually long flu season that could stretch well into the summer, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) top expert on influenza Pasi Penttinen told Reuters. "If we start to lift all measures, the big concern I have for influenza is that, because we have had such a long time of almost no circulation in the European population, maybe we will shift away from normal seasonal patterns," he said, adding that dismantling restrictive measures in the spring could prolong the circulation of flu far beyond the normal end of the European season in May.