Undiagnosed coronavirus runs rampant in Turkey - doctors

Turkish health workers who spoke to German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle this week painted a grim picture of the coronavirus’s spread in Turkey, casting doubt on the government’s figures for cases of the virus and raising alarm bells on the health service’s capacity to handle the pandemic.

The Health Ministry on Thursday recorded an official total of 3,629 confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses in Turkey and 75 deaths from the illness so far.

But the true figures are likely to be far higher because testing is limited and people who die of the virus before they are diagnosed are not recorded as coronavirus patients, doctors told Deutsche Welle's Turkish-language publication.

Instead of being recorded as coronavirus deaths, the known symptoms of the virus – such as respiratory problems – are written on death certificates, a doctor at a state hospital in Izmir told DW. “But we all know they died from coronavirus.”

A family doctor from Istanbul said symptoms like pneumonia and shortness of breath were being recorded for victims of the virus.

“It’s like I’m a traitor for saying it – my career as a doctor would be over,” the doctor said. “They say they die of shortness of breath, but they need to say that this is linked to COVID-19 and they don’t.

“Even if it isn’t recorded, everyone knows it was coronavirus, because there may not have been a test, but the signs are there from the lung scan, the tomography. How they got the virus is clear too, for example they went on the Umrah or they had contact with Iran or Italy.”

Thousands of pilgrims returned to Turkey in recent months from the Umrah pilgrimage to holy cities in Saudi Arabia and are likely, in some cases, to have brought the virus with them. Meanwhile Turkey’s porous border with Iran and the large number of traffic between the countries raised alarms when the number of coronavirus cases in the Islamic Republic began sharply rising in February.

Turkey officially recorded its first COVID-19 case on March 11, weeks after most of its neighbours. However, the figure rose dramatically by 1,196 on Thursday alone, according to the results of 7,286 tests taken in a 24-hour cycle.

A doctor at a hospital emergency department in Turkey’s northwestern Trakya region said that the infection figure is likely to shoot up in the coming weeks as the number of suspected coronavirus cases has leapt.

“It will rise, it will really rise. The situation we’re encountering in the field has shown us that,” the doctor said.

But with the crisis growing, medical workers are running short of essential protective equipment to shield them from the virus, despite the Health Ministry’s assurances that doctors were well equipped, another family doctor in Istanbul said.

“For example, overalls are what we need most. If you go to the toilet you have to throw them out, you can’t wear them again,” the doctor said.

“Even if I stop myself from using the toilet and if I don’t drink tea in the morning so I don’t need to take off my mask, I still need two (sets of overalls and masks) per day,” said the doctor. “Yesterday I paid 250 liras ($40) for a box of masks. We can’t even find them, but if we do, we’ll buy them despite the price tag because it’s our lives at stake.”

With Turkey expecting a large increase in the number of coronavirus patients, the government announced that it was ordering all capable private hospitals to devote several wards to dealing with the virus, declaring them “pandemic hospitals”.

But Dr. Reşat Bahat, the head of the Turkish Association of Private Hospitals and Health Institutions, told Independent Türkçe that the private facilities did not have the funds to deal with the pandemic and would need the government to support their staff’s wages through the ordeal.

“Either meet our needs or let the state come and manage (the hospitals) itself,” Bahat said. “The state needs to give us products and pay our wages, or it needs to come and treat the patients itself. If things keep going like this throughout the epidemic, we won’t manage.”