Protective masks have become an inseparable part of the lives of millions since the coronavirus pandemic took hold. They are also among the most bothersome aspects of the pandemic, which has killed thousands, forced businesses to shut down and landed many in intensive care, fighting for breath. But soon, we might be able to get rid of masks, this time for real, according to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca. Koca said this year would be the last summer where face masks will need to be worn as vaccines are becoming increasingly available. Yet, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board says people should not interpret it as abandoning masks immediately and keep wearing masks throughout the summer.
Koca’s remarks came at an online press conference after meeting with the board, where he spoke in detail about the country’s latest attempts to return life to normal. By achieving mass immunity with a combination of a vaccination campaign and ongoing recoveries, the country aims to further ease restrictions, after a mishmash of tight restrictions and normalization steps.
Explaining Turkey’s recent success at reducing daily coronavirus case numbers from record highs of around 60,000 in April to as low as 6,000 this week, Koca said it was time for Turkey to begin another normalization period following drastic restrictions and an ambitious vaccination campaign.
But he still cautioned on what had happened in previous normalization periods when people became too relaxed and dismissed the lingering coronavirus threat.
“After every normalization attempt where we have lost control, we have experienced deep wounds with exponential increases in case numbers and daily deaths. One thing is clear, as long as we fail to socialize in a controlled manner, we pay a heavy price medically, economically and sociologically,” the minister said.
Professor Levent Akın, who advises the government on measures against the pandemic as a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, agrees. In an interview with Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Thursday, Akın dispelled the belief that increasing temperatures curb infections. “It is not scientifically accurate to think that masks are not necessary while you are outside, in hot weather and believe that the virus would not spread in such an environment. We have to wear our masks, especially while in a crowd,” he warned.
As the country loosened restrictions, such as an end to Saturday curfews and a shorter nighttime curfew during weekdays, more people are back on the street, all across Turkey. Restaurants and cafes, which were closed to customers, are filling up again after months of operating only with takeaway services. The number of people flocking to parks and promenades also visibly increased, especially in big cities. “It is true that infections seldom occur in open spaces, but people have a broad definition of open spaces. I see groups in parks and gardens, bringing their chairs and tables, coming together in groups of up to 15 people, with no social distancing. You can remove your masks outdoors, in places where there are few people, but this is not the case when such groups are present. You have to be particularly careful while you are in other outdoor places, like marketplaces, where you cannot maintain your distance whether you want it or not,” he warned.
Akın said temperature has no link to the infection rate. “This belief stems from the fact that there is a lower possibility of infection when you are outdoors and far from other people. But if you do not maintain your distance from others or do not wear a mask, the infection is inevitable,” he added.
“We shouldn’t waste the hard-earned results of the lockdown periods by trying to return to our old lifestyles immediately. While we have come a long way in our fight against the pandemic, we need to remind ourselves that the virus is still among us,” Koca said Wednesday. “We need to remember that personal precautions will play a much more important role from now on. We will try to join a life returning to normal while taking our own precautions. This will be the last summer when our faces will be perspiring due to masks,” he added.
Akın notes that the real threat from the pandemic stems from people violating the rules. “People ignoring the rules and meeting others, falsely believing them to be free of infection increase the risk. You can wear your mask and maintain your social distancing but if you are in an environment with others not wearing masks, it is still a risk, especially if you remove your mask occasionally to eat and drink something,” he warned.
The mask requirement goes hand in hand with vaccination and as Koca pointed out vaccines are the single most effective tool at humankind’s disposal against the pandemic. He urged anyone hesitant to get the jab to trust in science and get their shots. “It has become clear that we can start to leave the pandemic behind after this summer if we continue to carry out our vaccination campaign. But for that to happen, I have one new request for you: Please get vaccinated,” the minister asserted.
While Turkey has administered more than 29 million COVID-19 vaccines so far, hesitancy remains a considerable risk. Fueled by rampant misinformation circulating on social media, a considerable amount of people have voiced concerns about the safety of the vaccines, saying they have been developed rather quickly compared to vaccines against other diseases.
“We are certain of the efficiency and safety of the vaccines that are being used in our country,” he said, as he warned against comparing the vaccines to each other. Turkey currently uses vaccines from China's Sinovac and Pfizer-BioNTech, with the Russian-made Sputnik V also set to be used soon. “To compare one vaccine to another in technical terms, you would need years’ worth of studies. Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccines are relatively new. What is important is that these vaccines have passed their clinical studies, efficiency and safety tests,” he said.
According to Koca, at least 60% of the population in Turkey needs to be vaccinated before the pandemic can truly be called under control, as that is the minimum threshold where herd immunity is expected to kick in. “That is why we need to get vaccinated to protect both ourselves and our loved ones. I want to repeat once again, the path to normalization lies with vaccines.”
Koca also said Turkey’s leading candidate for a domestically produced vaccine would soon start Phase 3 trials and would start to be used as soon as it passes the necessary tests.
Shortly after his press conference, Koca announced on Twitter that the vaccination campaign was being expanded to include all teachers, regardless of their age. According to Health Ministry data Wednesday, Turkey has recorded 7,181 new cases and 112 deaths due to COVID-19 over the past day. With Wednesday’s figures, the country currently has around 84,000 active cases.