Despite the high number of cases, strong momentum in Turkey's vaccination program and fewer coronavirus hospitalizations have prompted the relaxing of another pandemic-related measure.
As Turkey reached 139 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered since it launched a vaccination program in January 2021, it removed the requirement for unvaccinated individuals to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test for COVID-19 before using public transportation or attending large gatherings on Saturday. More than 57.2 million people have received the first jab, while over 51 million have been fully vaccinated, the Health Ministry said. The country has also given third booster shots to more than 23.3 million people.
Separately, the ministry confirmed 63,967 new coronavirus infections, 177 related deaths, and 52,016 recoveries on Saturday. As many as 384,263 virus tests were done.
The Interior Ministry issued instructions to governorates across the 81 provinces to lift test requirements, in line with recommendations by the Health Ministry's Coronavirus Scientific Advisory Board. Under the new rules, unvaccinated people, people who missed their second or third dose of vaccine and those who have not been infected with the coronavirus in the last 180 days will not be required to show the results of their PCR tests before boarding domestic buses, trains or other means of public transportation. They will also no longer be required to take PCR tests before attending events like concerts, film screenings and theater productions. The testing requirement for school staff and employees in the private and public sector was also lifted.
On Sunday, the government updated the PCR regulations and announced that tests would still be required from unvaccinated people, people with missing doses and those who were not infected with coronavirus in the last 180 days, before domestic flights. Similarly, people who work in nursing homes, child care homes and prisons and convicts in prison will also be required to undergo PCR tests if they are not vaccinated.
The PCR test requirement for the unvaccinated was introduced in September 2021 in a bid to boost the vaccination program at a time when the number of doses administered stood below 100 million.
Last week, Health Minister Fahrettin Koca announced the lifting of quarantine requirements for those with three vaccine shots if they come into contact with COVID-19 positive people. The PCR test requirement for those who come into contact with others infected with the virus was also lifted. “From now on, PCR tests will only be conducted on people showing symptoms,” he said.
Since December 2019, the pandemic has claimed over 5.5 million lives in at least 192 countries and regions, with more than 323 million cases reported worldwide, according to the U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
Although the fast-spreading omicron variant blamed for the surge in the number of cases raised concerns, authorities assured that the variant is not as severe as earlier strains of the coronavirus. Koca had tweeted on Saturday that far fewer people are currently hospitalized for COVID-19 compared to the early days of the pandemic, which made its foray into Turkey in March 2020. He warned, however, that the number of hospitalizations may increase if the case numbers escalate and urged people to keep up personal measures and get vaccinated. Personal measures include wearing protective masks and social distancing, practices that are still mandatory in the country, both indoors and outdoors.
Turkey relies on its vaccination program and has hailed it as key to curbing the number of fatalities since its first introduction in January 2021. Along with inactive CoronaVac imported from China, Turkey uses Pfizer-BioNTech's messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine and recently started offering domestically developed Turkovac. Though vaccine hesitancy lingers, the vaccination program reached out to many people in its first year thanks to the resilience of vaccination crews who visit remote locations that have limited access to jabs and convince people who are reluctant to get vaccinated to change their minds.
Professor Mustafa Necmi Ilhan, a member of the Health Ministry board advising the government on restrictions, acknowledged the high number of patients but noted that fewer people have been hospitalized and most recover after self-isolating at home. “Most of our citizens receive supplementary treatment at home and recover and this is because we have a large number of vaccinated citizens,” he told Anadolu Agency (AA) on Saturday. “We have seen that 90 of every 100 patients who ended up in intensive care due to COVID-19 were unvaccinated recently,” he added.
“Turkey is among the rare countries that offer three vaccines to its citizens,” Ilhan also said. He called upon people who missed their second and booster shots to get vaccinated as soon as possible. “People should not see one or two doses as sufficient. We see that vaccines are insufficient to keep antibody levels high after a certain time and the pandemic continues with the new variant. We know that omicron is highly infectious but not fatal. Still, we do not have clear evidence on whether it would evolve into a deadlier variant in the future,” he stressed.