Few people and most senior citizens nowadays wear protective masks against COVID-19 as more people are out on crowded streets and beaches. Though Turkey left the worst behind in the coronavirus pandemic, figures show a jump in the number of cases since June. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca acknowledged the surge but assured the public while pledging that the tight restrictions of the past two years would not come back.

“We know how we can live with COVID-19 by complying with measures. We all know now when and where we should wear our masks. So, there won’t be a new lockdown or a similar situation. We have vaccines, we have drugs and will continue with existing measures,” he told reporters in the capital Ankara after a Cabinet meeting on Monday.

Koca pointed out that Turkey was “four to five weeks ahead of Europe” regarding a new COVID-19 wave, noting that European countries like Germany, Italy and France reported more than 100,000 cases. “We also see an increasing number of cases, but those cases do not affect the workload of hospitals. The number of cases increased to 40 times but their burden on hospitals increased only by three times. So, it is safe to say that hospitals do not have a serious burden. Similarly, we don’t see any drastic rise in the number of cases requiring intensive care,” he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said Tuesday that coronavirus cases have tripled across Europe in the past six weeks, accounting for nearly half of all infections globally. Hospitalization rates have also doubled, although intensive care admissions have remained low. In a statement on Tuesday, WHO’s Europe Director, Dr. Hans Kluge, described COVID-19 as “a nasty and potentially deadly illness” that people should not underestimate. He said super-infectious relatives of the omicron variant were driving new waves of disease across the continent and that repeat infection could potentially lead to long COVID. “With rising cases, we’re also seeing a rise in hospitalizations, which are only set to increase further in the autumn and winter months,” Kluge said. “This forecast presents a huge challenge to the health workforce in the country after country, already under enormous pressure dealing with unrelenting crises since 2020.”

In WHO’s autumn strategy for COVID-19 released on Tuesday, the U.N. health agency called for measures including a second booster dose for anyone with weak immune systems aged 5 and over, promoting mask-wearing indoors and on public transportation and better ventilation in places including schools and offices.

Kluge said southern hemisphere countries were currently experiencing a very active flu season, that combined with COVID, was straining health systems. “We are likely to see a similar scenario in the northern hemisphere,” Kluge said, warning that increased pressure could lead to business, travel and school chaos. He urged people to make their own decisions, even in countries where authorities have largely abandoned coronavirus restrictions. “We’re all aware of the tools we have to keep ourselves safe, assess our level of risk and take the necessary steps to protect others if we get infected,” Kluge said. “Just because a mask isn’t mandated doesn’t mean it’s prohibited.”

Health Minister Koca emphasized the importance of vaccination as protection against COVID-19. Since the beginning of its vaccination program in January 2021, Turkey has administered more than 148 million doses. While more than 53 million people now have two doses of vaccine, another 27.8 million were administered their third doses. Authorities repeatedly call the public not to neglect their booster shots as vaccines wear out in months, requiring a new shot to restore efficiency.

“All citizens, particularly those aged 50 and above and people in risk groups, should be sensitive and should absolutely receive their reminder doses. People in the same risk groups, those with chronic illnesses, are also advised to wear protective masks in crowded environments,” he said. Koca also recommended Turkovac, the country’s domestically developed vaccine for those seeking inoculation, citing its efficiency.

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