The country is calling for caution as omicron, a new COVID-19 strain, is spreading across Turkey.
According to Health Minister Fahrettin Koca, it could take only a few weeks before the variant makes up the majority of COVID-19 cases. The minister told the Sabah newspaper that one in every four coronavirus cases stemmed from omicron. “This is a fast-spreading variant that can easily infect the people,” he warned.
Koca had announced last month that omicron accounted for 10% of total cases and has since revised this number to 25%. “It won’t be surprising if one in every three cases become omicron in one week or ten days,” he said, expressing his concerns.
The country lifted most restrictions to curb the coronavirus pandemic last summer and authorities repeatedly say that there won’t be new restrictions like the curfews and lockdowns that confined millions to their homes last year. Several measures, however, are in place, including mandatory mask rules, social distancing and hygiene measures. Those not wearing masks and who fail to comply with social distancing in crowded places are subject to fines. Other measures include a ban on the unvaccinated for entry to potentially crowded venues if they do not produce a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test result. People are also tracked through a Hayat Eve Sığar (Life Fits Into Home or HES) code assigned to each citizen.
The minister is quoted by Sabah as saying that the current social distancing rule – that is, keeping at least a two-meter distance from others indoors and outdoors – may not be sufficient to prevent infections in the case of omicron. “This new variant can infect you even if you are a long distance from others, especially in enclosed spaces,” he said. Koca said personal protective measures, well known by the public already, could help, highlighting the increased risk of infections especially indoors and in places without proper ventilation.
Other than those measures, vaccination is the only option to mitigate omicron infections. Koca says that although the vaccinated can be infected as well with the new variant, those with boosters had a “very low rate” of hospitalization or severe cases once they were infected with omicron. “Given the fast rise in the number of cases, protection provided by third doses is important,” he said. Turkey recently added Turkovac, a locally developed inactive vaccine to Pfizer-BioNTech’s messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and Sinovac’s inactive vaccine, which have been available to the Turkish public since January 2021.
Koca, meanwhile, points out a silver lining in the pandemic. “We predict that the coronavirus would be reduced to a seasonal flu when a new, less infectious and dangerous variant emerges. As a matter of fact, it is predicted that the efficacy of vaccines and newly developed drugs, as well as prevalence of omicron (which is milder than earlier variants) may bring an end to the pandemic,” he said.