Turkey's contact tracers race to contain coronavirus
Two medics in protective suits jumped out of a car in a deserted street in central Ankara and hurried inside a building - one carrying medical equipment and the other, paperwork.
Some 15 minutes later, they sped off to their next appointment, one of nearly 6,000 teams deployed across Turkey to try to stem the coronavirus pandemic by tracking down the contacts of those found to have become infected.
After recording some of the fastest growth in COVID-19 infections in the world, health officials say the outbreak in Turkey has hit a plateau around six weeks after the first case was confirmed.
The daily death toll has been on a downward trajectory for the last 10 days.
Health Minister Fahrettin Koca credits the country’s contact tracing efforts along with Turks’ largely voluntary adherence to lockdown measures, for the trend.
In contrast to South Korea, which limited deaths to below 250 with the help of a contact-tracing app, Turkey has taken a more labor-intensive approach.
Koca said on April 28 around 5,800 teams of two or three medics had identified 468,390 people who have been in contact with coronavirus patients. He said around 99% of those had been reached and were regularly monitored by health officials.
In the capital Ankara, a coordination center oversees the field visits and follow-up calls by telephone. The two groups cooperate to identify, test, and report cases across the city.
“Since a household is on average four to five people, with the workplace added in, there have been cases where we tracked 200 people at once,” said Ayşe Çiğdem Şimşek, the Ankara Provincial Health Directorate Deputy Chairwoman of Public Health Services.
Under the system, the teams are tasked with telling contacts of a COVID-19 sufferers to stay at home for 14 days, even if they do not have symptoms.
Other teams are then instructed to call them daily to ensure compliance and check on their health. If they report symptoms, they get another visit to give a sample for testing in hospital, Kerime Altunay, a public health doctor and coordinator of the remote monitoring team in Ankara, told Reuters.
The system grew out of a method Turkey had been using for decades to contain previous outbreaks of measles and flu, Şimşek told Reuters.
Turkey, with a population of 83 million is now doing 30,000-40,000 tests a day, according to data from the Health Ministry.
Schools were closed immediately and other measures, including the closure of non-essential shops and factories and compulsory lockdowns at weekends, were brought in in stages.
The lockdown has been stricter than South Korea but less stringent than some European countries like Spain or Italy.