Authorities and experts predict that the coronavirus pandemic will peak in March and the country may end the mandatory mask rule in the summer if no new variant emerges. A report published by Sabah newspaper on Tuesday says the Marmara region, which includes Istanbul and other big cities with a high number of cases, has already reached a plateau in terms of cases and is seeing a decline. No great surge in cases is expected for Anatolian cities, according to the report.
Most cases are concentrated in big cities, though the pandemic is altogether in a new stage in the country due to the prevalence of the omicron variant. This fast-spreading variant has so far been less fatal than earlier strains. Experts expect the surge, which currently corresponds to between 70,000 and 80,000 daily cases, will reach its maximum height in mid-March before a decline.
A drop in the number of positive tests has left experts optimistic. Positive test rates are below 20% daily, while the virus R or reproduction number, which represents the number of people that a host will infect, is 0.91. In other words, on average, every ten infected people infect nine people.
However, deaths remain a concern, along with a possible fluctuation in hospitalizations. Data shows people at the age of 65 and above make up 15% of the total number of cases and around 85% of fatalities. The majority of fatalities are those who are not vaccinated or who have missed at least one dose. Fatalities are very low among vaccinated senior citizens. Turkey offers three vaccines, including China’s CoronaVac, Pfizer-BioNTech’s messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and the domestically developed Turkovac. All of these provide at least 95% protection against severe cases of COVID-19 and fatalities. Still, authorities say booster shots are needed for everyone. Nearly 20 million people are still missing their booster shots.
Turkey is also on alert regarding BA.2, a subvariant of omicron, which was reported in India, Philippines and Denmark but has not been reported in the country so far. It may spread a little more easily than now-waning omicron, some scientists think, and may be a little more effective at eluding the protections vaccines and previous infections provide. So far, indications are it doesn’t make people any sicker than omicron, which still wound up spiking hospitalization and death rates simply because it affected so many more people.
Early evidence out of Denmark, where the subvariant now accounts for 65% of all cases, points to a strain of COVID-19 that spreads more effectively than the original omicron variant. Omicron’s likelihood of spreading within a household with one affected member is about 29%, compared with 39% for BA.2. It appears the risk of infection for vaccinated people is higher as well. A British study, though, found that vaccines appeared to be just as effective on the subvariant as on the original omicron variant. Vaccinated people are less likely to spread the subvariant, the Danish data suggested, than omicron. An earlier Danish study showed no increase in rates of hospitalizations as the new subvariant spread.
Experts anticipate the recent surge in cases, evident since the last months of 2021, will eventually die down with the onset of spring. Assuming no new variant emerges, as warming weather enables more people to spend more time outdoors instead of in insufficiently ventilated indoors venues, Turkey may gather pace in curbing the pandemic, according to experts. In the summer, authorities hope to remove the mandatory mask rule outdoors, a measure already taken in other countries.
On Monday, the country reported 76,632 new cases and 266 deaths, while the two-dose vaccination rate among people at the age of 18 and above exceeded 84%. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted on Monday evening that Turkey had about 14 million cases since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. “We were all affected but the majority among us managed to protect ourselves. We have to sustain this success. Please do not neglect measures thinking you will be infected anyway. Taking measures is the correct way to fight the pandemic,” he tweeted.