Turkey faces a harsh COVID-19 winter but the disease will eventually evolve into simple flu in 2022, according to professor Tevfik Özlü, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board.
Özlü’s statement reflects concerns in Turkey where the number of COVID-19 cases rarely go below 28,000 nowadays. Daily fatalities dropped below 200 on Sunday but often fluctuate above this number, a worrying sign for the country despite the increased vaccination rate.
Factors vary in the new surge, which is only worsened by the fast-spreading delta variant. Young people, or those below the age of 30, make up more than half of COVID-19 cases. Increased mobility after a return to in-person education last month and apparent neglect of mandatory mask and social distancing rules contribute to this new wave of cases.
Experts had already predicted the new surge in autumn, a time when more people spend time indoors and in crowded places. As a matter of fact, the country was forced to reintroduce tough restrictions last autumn in the face of a steep rise in the number of cases. As the same scenario repeats itself, Özlü said winter will only be more challenging, in terms of the pandemic’s impact. So, how can the country beat this impact? In an interview with the Turkish daily, Hürriyet, he highlighted the need to step up vaccination.
The vaccination program, in parallel with a new normalization process this summer, was opened up for more people. The eligibility limit for the CoronaVac and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines was lowered to 15. With more than 112 million doses administered so far, Turkey has made significant progress. Yet, younger people tend to embrace vaccine hesitancy, a major obstacle to the vaccination program, according to experts.
“We have a high proportion of the population attending in-person education. Some 30 million people, from students and teachers to other people working at schools, are now highly mobile. At least 40 people come together for five days a week in enclosed environments,” he said, referring to classrooms that reach this number or more at some schools. “It is a very suitable environment for infections,” he said.
Özlü rules out an end to in-person education but says a higher vaccination rate and compliance with mask and social distancing rules can help improve the situation. He also laments an apparent lack of interest to wear masks among university students, who returned to campuses after a long break due to the pandemic.
“I have a positive outlook for 2022. We still don’t have the chaotic atmosphere that was prevalent last year. Yet, cases will further increase, especially in the winter. We can certainly prevent it with measures and more vaccination, but it seems like a difficult task. I hope COVID-19 will be (reduced to) a common infection like the flu, once we achieve further progress in vaccination,” he said.