Vaccine hesitancy appears to be the only hurdle now for health care workers as Turkey's inoculation drive against the coronavirus pandemic spreads like fire across the country. Started first at hospitals, the campaign has now been expanded to outdoor venues, villages and even fields. As of Sunday, the number of doses administered exceeded 52.4 million, including more than 15.6 million people who received both two doses.
The daily number of doses administered occasionally reaches over 1 million as the country hopes to achieve mass immunity before the end of summer. Since last month, the campaign, which first covered health care workers and senior citizens, has been open for all citizens aged 18 and above.
Previously requiring an appointment taken at least a few days before, vaccination is now available with a same-day appointment and in some less crowded places, no appointment is required at all. Vaccination booths are ubiquitous in the country, everywhere from shopping malls to busy squares, for those abstaining from going to hospitals or smaller clinics.
“How do you make COVID-19 COVID-0? The vaccine is the only solution to get closer to the conclusion,” Health Minister Fahrettin Koca tweeted Saturday, after announcing that health care workers across the country administered 1.1 million doses on Friday alone.
A new decision by the Health Ministry may further boost the campaign by saving on precious vaccines. Though Turkey does not suffer from any problems in access to the two vaccines it approved, China’s CoronaVac and the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, it still needs to ensure its stocks are not depleted as a precaution and for “booster” doses.
The ministry canceled second dose appointments for people who had recovered from coronavirus and were administered the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Last month, the ministry pulled the timeframe of vaccine requirements for recovered coronavirus patients from six months following recovery to three months. Experts say one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is sufficient to develop an immunity response.
Now, vaccination aversion remains the biggest challenge for the country. Social media is awash with messages of anti-vaxxers and vaccine skeptics voicing their concerns over the jabs. Conspiracy theories such as “tracking chips” being used in vaccines, unproven allegations that jabs cause infertility and cause people to attract “metals” to the spot where the jab is injected, proliferate. Officials repeatedly call people to have their vaccines, while scientists look to assure the public that the vaccines are safe.
Mehmet Emin Bilmez is among them. Governor of Van, an eastern province of more than 1.1 million people, Bilmez pleads to the public to have their jabs. So far, more than 392,000 doses were administered in the province. Bilmez says although the vaccination rate among people at the age of 65 and above were “above Turkey’s average,” inoculation rates dropped when younger people became eligible.
“Please, if you respect our health care workers who could not hug their children for months because of the pandemic, please get your vaccine,” Bilmez told reporters as he was injected his third dose at a hospital in the province Saturday.
“You can have your jabs at hospitals, at neighborhood clinics, or from mobile crews in parks and streets. We have to get vaccinated so the restrictions do not return,” Bilmez said.
Turkey lifted almost all restrictions related to the pandemic on July 1. Weekday nighttime curfews and weekend curfews were completely lifted, along with limits on intercity travels. Restaurants and other businesses were allowed to operate with more eased social distancing rules. Masks are still mandatory in the country.
Professor Levent Akın, a member of the Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board that advises the government on pandemic-related measures, acknowledges “hesitancy” among people at the age of 18 and above and seeks to persuade them. “Vaccines have no side effects as people believe. They are only exaggerations,” Akın told Demirören News Agency (DHA). Akın said that the youngest group eligible for jabs are the most “mobile” and have reservations about vaccines.
“Some think that the coronavirus would not harm them. Others are the ‘internet generation’ who read too many lies about vaccines online. I see those with health literacy getting their vaccines,” he said.
“Nearly 50,000 people died of coronavirus and some among them were young people. The youth should come to their senses. Vaccination will facilitate reopening of universities, will allow them to walk freely on the streets, go to restaurants and cafes without restrictions and socialize more,” he added. He also said vaccination age may further be lowered to 12 in the country, “probably toward September,” noting that messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines had already received emergency use approval in other countries for their use on children.
In Van’s neighboring province Bitlis, mobile crews pay visits to the villages for residents unable to travel to nearby towns with hospitals and clinics. Though the weather is fine in the province whose long, harsh winters are notorious, rural areas accessible only by narrow roads where vehicles cannot reach, provide a challenge for vaccination crews.
Undaunted by the challenge, nurses and doctors walk for kilometers to vaccinate people in remote villages. Cengiz İnan, the mukhtar of Kolludere – one such remote village where about 400 people live – said it is “a blessing” for them. “People have to travel for 35 kilometers (21.75 miles) to reach the nearest hospital. But crews come here so we don’t have to. Everyone here is happy to have them. May Allah bless all our health care workers and our nation,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) Sunday.
The country’s swift vaccination campaign, which once put it on the ninth spot in the world in a list of countries with the most doses administered, also draws praise from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Dr. Batyr Berdyklychev, WHO country representative in Turkey, said the country accomplished success in the fight against the pandemic and was one of the “leading countries,” especially in vaccination.
Speaking to AA Saturday, Berdyklychev said the vaccination rate was at a good level in Turkey, with the inoculation drive now open to everyone.
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