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BA.5 variant prevails among COVID-19 cases in Türkiye

BA.5 variant prevails among COVID-19 cases in Türkiye

With an eight-fold increase in only one month, coronavirus cases are on the rise in Türkiye, according to earlier reports from July. Türkiye had eased the coronavirus-related restrictions in light of daily cases dropping to the lowest levels earlier this year. BA.5, a variant of the infection, is blamed for the rise. Some 80% of cases stem from the variant, which is able to infect people even outdoors, unlike earlier, less severe variants.

Experts call on the public to take their protection measures while all-out lockdowns are out of the question for now, according to authorities. They recommend wearing protective masks indoors and outdoors if they are in crowded areas.

Levent Yamanel, a member of the Health Ministry’s Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board, told the Sabah newspaper on Wednesday that BA.5 variant spreads “4-5 times faster” than omicron and can be infectious even in the open air. He said that Türkiye has around the same prevalence of the new variant as other countries. “People should take personal measures. They should wear masks, adhere to social distancing and hygiene rules,” he said. Yamanel noted that some patients were ending up in intensive care; most of them were people aged 65 and above and those with chronic illnesses. “We see people with suppressed immunity systems in intensive care now,” he said. He also urged the public not to neglect vaccination.

Professor Alper Şener, another member of the Board, who also works as an infectious diseases expert at Izmir Katip Çelebi University, said they witnessed a rise in outpatients and hospitalizations with intensive care. “Those in intensive care are the unvaccinated patients,” he added. “Number of patients will rise, but we don’t expect a similar rise in patients in need of intensive care,” he said.

Şener said that it was important to break the cycle of infections, which is possible by wearing masks. “Variants are ineffective against masks. People should wear masks if they mingle in crowds, even outdoors. For instance, we see people diagnosed with COVID-19 after attending outdoor wedding parties,” he said. “Believing you will have a mild case at all times even if you are infected is wrong. You can also suffer from long-term symptoms after you recover and can be exposed to losses in taste and smell, brain damage and heart problems,” he said.

Two new variants of the virus appear to more easily evade immune protection from prior infections, meaning even some who have recovered from a case of COVID-19 in recent months may become a clean slate for the virus. Doctors say the vaccines still remain effective in largely preventing hospitalizations and death. The variants in the omicron family, BA.5 and BA.4, together are now the dominant strains in some countries, including the United States.

Even though the vaccines, along with new therapies that treat COVID-19, increasingly make the virus less deadly upon infection, its ability to continue to reinfect people at rapid rates raises the specter of continued disruptions as many countries continue to face supply chain issues. And much is still unknown about COVID-19’s long-term health impact, doctors say, with evidence mounting that prior infections can put people at higher risk for other medical conditions.

Türkiye staved off the worst of the pandemic in the past few months after grappling with new highs in the number of daily cases. Experts tie the decline in coronavirus cases to the less severe omicron strain, which contributed to a drop in hospitalizations. A vaccination drive, which began in January 2021, also significantly decreased the prevalence of the cases. In light of positive developments, Türkiye gradually eased restrictions related to the pandemic. Currently, none of the previous tight restrictions, from social distancing to mandatory polymerase chain reaction tests (PCR), exist, while hospitals are the only venues where the public is required to wear protective masks.

Still, experts warn that the risk lingers for people with chronic illnesses and elderly citizens, advising them to take self-protection measures, including wearing protective masks. Health authorities earlier announced that most hospitalizations and fatalities were among senior citizens and people suffering from other diseases.

Since the first case was reported on March 11, 2020, more than 15.5 million people, slightly less than the population of the country’s most crowded city Istanbul, tested positive for the coronavirus. Nearly 100,000 people died of the infection. Türkiye commenced a nationwide vaccination drive in January 2021. It reached nearly 150 million doses. More than 53 million people now have their two doses of the vaccine, while another 27.9 million people were inoculated with third doses of the vaccines of China’s Sinovac or Pfizer-BioNTech’s Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine.