ANKARA, Turkey (AP) – When Turkey changed the way it reports daily COVID-19 infections, it confirmed what medical groups and opposition parties have long suspected – that the country is facing an alarming wave of cases that is rapidly depleting Turkish health of the system.
In a change of face, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government this week resumed reporting all positive coronavirus tests – not just the number of patients being treated for symptoms – bringing the number of daily cases to more than 30,000. With the new data, the country has jumped from being one of the least affected countries in Europe to one of the hardest hit.
This was not surprising to the Turkish Medical Association, which had been warning for months that previous government figures were masking the risk of the spread and that the lack of transparency was contributing to the increase. However, the group confirms that the ministry’s numbers are still low compared to its estimate of at least 50,000 new infections per day.
No country can report accurate numbers about the spread of the disease because many asymptomatic cases are not detected, but the previous counting method made Turkey appear relatively affordable in international comparisons, with many fewer daily new cases than those reported in European countries including Italy, Britain and France.
That changed on Wednesday as the number of daily cases in Turkey nearly quadrupled from around 7,400 to 28,300.
The country’s hospitals are overwhelmed, medical staff are overworked, and contract trackers, who have been credited with keeping the outbreak under control, are struggling to trace transmission, Sibnim Koror Finkansi, president of the association, told The Associated Press.
“It’s the perfect storm,” said Finkansi, whose group has come under attack from Erdogan and his nationalist allies to question the government’s figures and its response to the outbreak.
Although the Minister of Health has set the occupancy rate of intensive care beds at 70%, Ebru Keranir, who heads the ICNI Association in Istanbul, says that the ICU beds in Istanbul’s hospitals are nearly full, as doctors scramble to find a place for them. The patients are in critical condition.
She added that there is a shortage of nurses and the current nursing staff is exhausted.
“ICU nurses have been unable to return to their normal lives since March,” she told the Associated Press. “Their children haven’t seen their unmasked faces in months.”
Erdogan said, however, “there is no problem” with hospital capacity. He blamed the increase in troop numbers on the public’s failure to wear masks, which is mandatory, and to adhere to social distancing rules.
Demonstrating the seriousness of the outbreak, Turkey last month suspended the leave of health care workers and temporarily banned resignations and early retirement during the pandemic. A similar three-month ban was imposed in March.
Official COVID-19 daily deaths have also steadily risen to record numbers, reaching 13,373 on Saturday with 182 new deaths, in a reflection of the country’s wealth which has been praised for keeping deaths low. But these records are still in dispute, too.
Istanbul Mayor Akram Imamoglu said 186 people had died from infectious diseases in the city on November 22 – the day the government announced only 139 deaths from the new coronavirus across the country. The mayor also said that about 450 burials are conducted daily in the city of 15 million, compared to the 180-200 average recorded in November of the previous year.
“We can only overcome the outbreak through a transparent process,” said Imamoglu, from Turkey’s main opposition party. Russia and Germany announced a high death toll. Has Germany lost its luster? Has Russia Collapsed? “
Health Minister Fakhruddin Kujah rejected Imamoglu’s allegations, saying, “I want to confirm that all the numbers I cite are accurate.”
Last week, Erdogan announced a series of restrictions in an effort to contain the contagion without affecting the economy or an already weak business activity. Opposition parties described it as “half-baked”. The curfew was imposed for the first time since June, but it was restricted to weekend evenings, closed restaurants and cafes except for outside dining services, and restricted the working hours of shopping centers, stores and hairdressers.
Both Fincanci and Kiraner said the measures don’t go far enough to contain the transmission.
“We need a full lockdown of at least two weeks, if not four weeks, which is what science considers the ideal amount,” said Fincanci.
Koca said the number of seriously ill patients and deaths was rising and said that some cities, including Istanbul and Izmir, were experiencing a “third peak.” Turkey will wait, however, for two weeks to see the results of the weekend curfew and other restrictions before considering stricter lockdowns, he said.
Meanwhile, the country has reached an agreement to receive 50 million doses of the vaccine developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company SinoVac and hopes to start administering it to medical staff and those with chronic diseases next month. Talks are also underway to purchase a vaccine developed by Pfizer in cooperation with the pharmaceutical company BioNTech. The vaccine that Turkey developed is scheduled to be ready for use in April.
Erdogan said he had also spoken with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the possibility of purchasing a vaccine developed by that country.
Zainab Bilginsoy from Istanbul contributed to this report.