It has been more than a year since the coronavirus made its foray into Turkey. Affecting the elderly the most at the beginning, the deadly disease is now more prevalent among the youth. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced late Wednesday that people aged 30 and below made up more than 50% of the cases now.
The pandemic is at its highest levels nowadays after case numbers receded sharply following a 17-day lockdown earlier this summer. The lockdown was followed both by the lifting of most restrictions, including curfews, and an expanded vaccination program. Yet, the number of daily cases is steadily climbing again.
On Wednesday, they reached over 30,000, the highest since April 30, while 236 people died in one day, the highest in weeks in fatalities. Some may be baffled by the elevated number of cases and the high rate of vaccination, though experts say the fast-spreading delta variant may be the culprit in the new wave of infections. The variant coupled with the number of unvaccinated people, still high in the country of more than 83 million, is aggravating the pandemic. People violating the remaining pandemic restrictions, like mandatory masks and social distancing, are also among the factors worsening the situation.
Koca, issuing a written statement after a meeting of his ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, said Turkey achieved a high vaccination rate, especially after making people aged 18 and above eligible for inoculation. “This reduced the average age of coronavirus cases,” he said.
The elderly, along with health care workers, were the first to receive COVID-19 jabs in Turkey, which launched the vaccination program in January. “Our youth tends to get infected more. Yet, this high number is not causing an increase in hospitalization and intensive care stays,” he said, linking it to the mass vaccination. “Still, they serve as carriers of the virus and spread it to their families and other, older people. The highest rate of COVID-19 fatalities in the past month has been among people at the age of 70 and above,” he highlighted.
Vaccination is essential to achieve mass immunity, which is the only way to eliminate the pandemic according to health authorities. Nevertheless, vaccine hesitancy, coupled with anti-vaxxer movements, endanger immunity efforts. Media outlets had recently reported that the Health Ministry was considering giving booster shots for people with two doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, to prolong immunity. Third shots are already available for people with two doses of the inactive CoronaVac vaccine.
Koca said there was currently no need for a third dose of Pfizer-BioNTech’s Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine. “Protection from the mRNA vaccine still exists as third doses started being administered about four months ago. But those who are administered with the inactive vaccine should have their third dose as soon as possible, either with an inactive vaccine or with the mRNA vaccine,” he warned.
Koca said the current number of infections was a critical load for Turkey. “Although having more younger COVID-19 patients is not a burden on the health care system, it is still unacceptable to have a high number of infected people. We cannot relax our measures without achieving mass immunity through vaccination,” he said.
Professor Alper Şener, a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, says cases were especially higher among youth between the ages of 20 and 25. Şener, who also works at a hospital in the western province of Izmir, told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Thursday that almost all patients in COVID-19 intensive care units at his hospital were "unvaccinated."
"Some 25% among them are young people. In our coronavirus units for people who do not need intensive care, we see almost one in every four patients is below the age of 30. Again, they are unvaccinated, but they almost unanimously express regret for not getting vaccinated," he said.
Şener also pointed out that higher mobility among the youth, with the reopening of universities, may further fuel a rise in the coronavirus cases. But for Şener, the real problem is the mindset among the youth, "who believe that the coronavirus would not be as harmful to them as it is for older people and those who believe that one dose of the vaccine is sufficient for protection against the coronavirus."
"Scientific studies show that this is not the case. You should not rely on your age for better protection against the coronavirus. But you can be assured that people who have had their two doses of vaccine recover easily from the disease," he said.
Şener also warned about long COVID-19. "Even though younger people recover, they may suffer from long-term effects, like breathing problems, which sometimes last for six months," he said.