It has been one year since Health Minister Fahrettin Koca and members of his ministry's Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board lined up outside a vaccination room at Ankara City Hospital in the Turkish capital to get their COVID-19 jabs, becoming the first group of people in the country to get vaccinated against the deadly disease. Turkey's vaccination program, which started with health care workers, has come a long way since Jan. 13, 2021. Today, Turkey has more than 52 million people who have received their two doses of the vaccine, the minimum requirement for protection against COVID-19. Overall, the country administered more than 138 million doses and more than 22.7 million people now have their third doses in the country of more than 83 million people.
The vaccination program, which was opened up for more people last summer, including children of certain ages, is viewed as successful, but the work is not yet done. "Mass vaccination took us closer to normal (pre-pandemic) life in one year. We should get our missing doses now," Koca tweeted on the anniversary of the vaccination campaign.
Turkey provides CoronaVac, an inactive vaccine developed by China's Sinovac and a messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech to its citizens. Turkovac, a locally developed inactive vaccine, has also been available since last month, although in a limited capacity.
Turkey is currently grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, a rise evident since last month. After breaking an all-time record in daily cases with 77,722 this week, the country reported more than 75,000 new cases on Thursday while 153 people died of coronavirus on the same day. Experts tie these astronomical figures to omicron, a fast-spreading new variant whose fallout was reflected in weekly case figures, with big cities witnessing sharp jumps in numbers.
Authorities urge the public to get their booster shots and recently opened up appointments for fifth doses for vaccinated people. Jabs remain the only effective form of protection against infection in the absence of pandemic-related restrictions, which were mostly lifted in the summer of 2021, in parallel with the expanding vaccination program. Though wearing protective masks and adhering to social distancing is still mandatory, experts warn that more people are reluctant to take these self-protection measures, as a pandemic "fatigue" sets in and a misperception that views masks and distancing as unnecessary for those who are vaccinated prevails. Vaccine hesitancy and anti-vaxxers have also damaged efforts to ramp up vaccination.
Yasin Çağatay Erdemci is among those who hesitated to get his jabs. The 32-year-old man living in the southern province of Antalya has paid dearly for his belief and is currently fighting for his life at the intensive care unit of a hospital in the province after being hospitalized with the coronavirus. Erdemci told Anadolu Agency (AA) during a break from his treatment, which involves intense doses of oxygen, that, "I thought I would not be infected if I kept my immune system strong by doing exercises regularly, consuming vitamin supplements and healthy foods." Erdemci had tested positive after he sought treatment for a high fever. After 10 days of self-isolation at his home, which he shares with his wife and 3-year-old son, his health deteriorated, and he was taken to the hospital. It has been about 20 days since he was admitted to the hospital and his health still has not improved. "I regret not getting vaccinated. Everyone should get vaccinated as soon as possible. It is very bad to be not able to breathe. People here take care of my health, but this is an intolerable disease," he said.
Health care workers strive to break the vaccine hesitancy across the country while reaching remote residential areas where people do not have access to the vaccine. One such team is working in freezing temperatures in Ardahan, one of the coldest places in the country. Doctors and nurses hit the road in the early hours of the day to reach villages amid thick snowfall, blizzards and bone-chilling weather. Roads closed due to heavy snow sometimes forced them to walk for kilometers. Once they reach the villages, they visit every household with unvaccinated residents, trying to convince people to get their jabs and administering jabs to those who were not able to go to towns and cities for vaccination due to bad weather and their old age. "The challenges are numerous. We have snowfall, cold weather and, sometimes, stray dogs attack us. But we overcome them. We only want people to be willing to get a vaccination, nothing else," Dr. Halenur Korkmaz, a member of vaccination teams in Ardahan, told AA.
It remains to be seen whether the vaccination will ultimately break the cycle of infections as the virus evolves. "We hope this will be the last wave that we see," professor Tevfik Özlü, a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, said. Özlü told Demirören News Agency (DHA) on Friday that the omicron wave reached new heights, and they would have more cases in the coming days. "Whereas, people act like the pandemic is over and life is back to normal," he lamented. Özlü said, although most cases had mild symptoms that allow the patients to recover after self-isolation at home, severe cases still exist. "People who test positive suffer from serious pains, in their muscles, back, chest, from fatigue, sore throat, headache and sometimes, these symptoms last for a week. It is worse for elderly people and people with chronic illnesses. We lose a planeload of people almost every day," he said.