‘COVID-19 pandemic may ease in two months if measures implemented’
Barçın Yinanç - ISTANBUL
“If we can implement the isolation in an efficient way, I would think the outbreak will start to subside in two months’ time. But everything depends on us,” Profesor Fusün Eyüboğlu has told the Hürriyet Daily News.
Tell us how you see the current situation in Turkey.
Turkey ranks 14th in the world in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases. Compared to other countries like Italy, for instance, we seem to have a faster rate of increase in the numbers of diagnosed cases. At this stage, we do not know when we will reach the peak.
Why are we showing a faster trend? Shouldn’t we be more prepared to slow down the spread?
The more you do the tests, the more you see positive cases. Maybe there was a difference in terms of the number of tests conducted in Italy in the first two weeks. It was apparent that we were going to be affected by the outbreak, so now we have to try to reach the peak with fewer patients. I think we might see the peak in two or three weeks’ time.
The Health Ministry is releasing the numbers of those diagnosed with COVID-19. But there are also cases in hospitals that are suspected of having been infected by COVID-19 yet are still waiting to be tested. Shouldn’t they be included in the statistics?
Indeed, the more tests we do, the more we will catch the positive cases. There are cases in hospitals which make us think they might have the virus, so probably we should assume that the numbers will turn out to be higher.
When looking at the statistics in Turkey, does the country show any different trend compared to other countries? A young health care worker has died at the age of 33 because of COVID-19.
But she did have previous health problems. In our case as well, the losses are rather among older people. We do have losses among those above 50, but in some of them, there are some other underlying health problems. [Those who already have health problems] have more difficulty. … But the fatality rate is higher among the older age group.
Do you see a difference in terms of geographical breakdown? The latest restrictions, for instance, were implemented in the 30 biggest cities.
Just as it is in the United States where New York has the most cases, Istanbul tops the cities in terms of [Turkey’s] big cities. That’s why there is a need to limit the entries and exits from the city. Istanbul is the center of trade, both in terms of land and sea. It connects two continents, and several airlines have connections from Istanbul. It is a city with intense human traffic, so there is a need for control for some time.
How do you rate the implementation of advice regarding social distancing and isolation?
As an individual and someone living in Ankara, I do see that the ban preventing those 65 years old and above has stopped them from going out. The schools are closed, but then just as I was coming to my office, I observed that the vehicles used to transport personnel to their workplaces are still full of people. The rule regarding seating at a distance is not being observed. That’s why new measures were imposed so that each workplace introduces a rotational working scheme to reduce the number of employees.
We have been hearing that the inspections in Istanbul are a bit less vigorous and that locals are implementing the measures in a selective way. As a result, the limited implementation necessitated the introduction of sanctions to bring the situation under control. I think the restrictions implemented on travel between cities will make a difference as well.
It seems there is a problem in terms of the public sector.
That’s right. The public sector is not telling its employees to avoid coming to work, and there has not been a transition to a periodic working schedule. Everyone is going to their workplace, and even though there is less work, they stay together in crowded spaces. Going to work in limited numbers on a rotating basis is more logical.
Some are wondering why there is not a total lockdown or more draconian measures.
If the measures are not implemented, we will get to that stage step by step. But this is the ‑last thing we want. Although this looks like the ultimate solution, it has a lot of negative consequences as well – that’s why, most probably, this decision is being delayed. As the science committee, we make our suggestions, and the state decides on the timing of the introduction of the measures.
What’s next? What are we to expect: two months, six months of self-isolation?
It is difficult to make such a prediction. If we can implement the isolation in an efficient way, I would think [the outbreak] will start to subside in two months’ time. But it all depends on us and to what degree we can separate patients from healthy people. Currently, however, I can’t say we have seen the peak – it is too early to say that.
If we had to assess whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, what would we say about Turkey’s performance?
We have been aware of the presence of the outbreak since mid-January and stared to make preparations. Based on scenarios, strategic action plans were prepared. In a phased fashion, measures to ensure individual isolation and social distancing in society were introduced. There are question marks as to what degree the [importance] of these measures were understood or society adapted to these measures. In fact, it is due to these question marks that the measures are being increased.
One advantage is that all the scientists are sharing their experiences and that helps the countries that are behind others. And as Turkey, we are lucky that the virus came quite late to Turkey in comparison to other countries. And as doctors, we had more knowledge on possible treatments based on input from other countries.
So, in terms of specifying which hospitals will be pandemic hospitals, what doctors in intensive care should do, how suspected patients should be treated, et cetera, we have done quite a lot, and this is also the case in terms of isolating patients with COVID-19 and tracing and monitoring those who might have been in contact with COVID-19 cases. The glass is half-full in terms of the awareness of health personnel and the Health Ministry in terms of taking measures.
In terms of the glass half-empty part, we need to develop the public’s awareness. I see that there is a certain level of panic among people. We will overcome this outbreak; people should not forget that 85 percent of patients recover. But we need to better ensure that people are adapting to the measures. And also on the half-empty part, we need to do more testing. As we do tests, we can catch those who are infected with COVID-19 but show no signs.
Let me also add that local authorities, especially local administrations like governor’s offices, are involved in this process. Each city will set up its own pandemic board so there is going to be better coordination and better monitoring of the measures that have been taken by the central administration. And they can make decisions on additional measures.
Finally, does the science commission have any specific advice in terms of burying patients who die from COVID-19?
We have advised personnel who will take care of bodies to wear special protective outfits. For those coming from other cities, we have advised that the body be buried in a coffin. We have not made any recommendations regarding the designation of special places for burials. It seems some local administrations have taken the decision to designate specific places in specific cemeteries.
*Who is Füsun Eyüboğlu?
Füsun Eyüboğlu is a professor of pulmonary diseases at Başkent University in Ankara. She is currently a member of the novel coronavirus science committee of the Health Ministry.
She graduated from Ankara University’s Faculty of Medicine in 1990. She conducted her post-doctorate research in the pulmonary diseases and intensive care department of at the University of Pennsylvania between 1994 and 1996.