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Turkey relaxes pandemic rules, lifts mask requirement amid concerns

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Turkey has lifted its requirement to wear masks outdoors and in places with sufficient ventilation and where social distancing can be maintained, raising concerns in the medical community about the course of the pandemic in the country, local media reported on Wednesday.

Turkish Health Minister Fahrettin Koca on Wednesday said at a news conference following a meeting of the country’s COVID-19 advisory council that people would be required to continue wearing masks in planes, buses, theaters, cinemas, hospitals and classrooms.

Koca also said Turkey would no longer close down classes where two or more students have tested positive for the virus.

According to the minister, the country is also lifting its HES (Hayat Eve Sığar — Life Fits into Home), code queries that allowed authorities to track those who have been in contact with infected people, while only those displaying symptoms would be tested.

The HES code, developed by the Health Ministry, allows people to share their COVID-19 risk status with institutions and individuals for activities such as transportation or visits and can be checked through an an app or services provided to institutions.

“We are not removing masks from our lives. We will be carrying them with us to wear when necessary,” Koca said.

Although the easing of the mask mandate and other restrictions comes amid a drop in officially recorded COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, some physicians have warned that cases in Turkey are still high and that not enough people have been fully vaccinated.

“All members of the [Coronavirus] Scientific Advisory Board are wearing highly protective masks while the lifting of the mask requirement is being announced [to the public]. Of course, we all want to take off the masks, but we must make this decision based on scientific data,” Dr. Şebnem Korur Fincancı, chairperson of the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) and a prominent human rights activist, tweeted on Wednesday.

“The health authority, which hasn’t taken the measures that should be taken in accordance with scientific principles since the beginning of the epidemic, is responsible for not stopping preventable deaths. It has made this responsibility even more visible with its latest statements,” Fincancı added.

Prof. Dr. Mehmet Ceylan, chairman of Infectious Diseases Association, said countries that had eased the measures either relied on the drastic decrease in the number of daily cases and the high vaccination rate, like the Netherlands, or made a mistake, like the UK.

“Let’s hope that it will work out and be good [for us],” Ceylan said.

“Decisions that aren’t based on science can lead the [country’s] risk group to destruction,” Kayıhan Pala, a prominent public health expert, also warned.

Turkey reported just under 60,000 infections on Tuesday and 203 deaths. Around 85 percent of the adult population has been double vaccinated and 27 million people in the country of more than 84 million have received booster shots.

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