ISTANBUL (AP) — As Turkey faces a dramatic rise in COVID-19 infections during the pandemic’s second wave, hospitals that were quickly built in the early days of the outbreak are dealing with some of the country’s most serious cases.
Two prefabricated infirmaries in Istanbul, constructed in less than 45 days and opened in May, are offering state-of-the-art intensive care facilities dedicated to COVID-19 patients.
Named after renowned Turkish physicians who died from the disease, the hospitals are located near airfields to give ease of access to sufferers from across Turkey and are built to similar specifications, each with 1,008 beds, 16 operating theaters, dialysis units and wards for infected pregnant women and babies.
The Associated Press visited the Dr. Feriha Oz Emergency Hospital, located in Cekmekoy district on Istanbul’s Asian side, on Saturday.
In a pristine intensive care room, the air cleaned with filters that capture the airborne virus, 52-year-old construction worker Ismet Yucel was recovering.
“They brought me here in an ambulance. I couldn’t breathe," he said through an oxygen mask. “My lungs were infected. I was in a very bad condition, I couldn’t breathe. Thank God, I’m fine now.”
When the pandemic first struck, Turkey was credited for quickly bringing infection rates under control. It is now seeing an explosion in cases that is putting a serious strain on its health system.
The seven-day average for daily infections is more than 25,000 while the daily death toll has been breaking record highs in recent weeks, with total fatalities reaching above 18,000.
Turkey’s Health Ministry insists the ICU occupancy rate across Turkey stands at 68% but the Turkish Medical Association has painted a different picture, saying doctors are scrambling to find beds for seriously sick patients.
Erdogan’s government has imposed nighttime curfews and weekend lockdowns to try to slow the surge, as well as announcing a four-day lockdown from New Year’s Eve. Restaurants can only serve takeaway meals, while some businesses such as hairdressers are allowed to operate limited hours. Children and the elderly have been barred from using public transport.
Batuhan Yagci, a nurse at Dr. Feriha Oz hospital, stressed that the coronavirus does not just represent a danger to the elderly.
“Even those who are 27, 25, 20 years old are having difficulties breathing and breakdown crying in front of our eyes,” he said. “They say ‘I can’t breathe, please don’t leave me. Hold my hand.’”
During its visit, the AP’s team saw nurses caring for an 11-day-old baby boy who arrived just five days after his birth.
Dr. Cigdem Akalan Kuyumcu, an infectious disease expert working in the ICU, said many patients feared admission to the unit.
“We have patients that ask as they are entering the ICU, ‘Will I be able to come back?’ This affects us profoundly,” she said. “It saddens us. Of course, when our patients recover we are overjoyed.”
The new restrictions on everyday life have proved successful in reducing the number of patients admitted, according to the hospital's chief physician Dr. Nurettin Yiyit.
“With the start of the restrictions, we saw a significant drop in the number of patients admitted as walk-ins,” he said. “When we compare it with the week before, we see a 30% decrease in walk-in admissions.”
Despite the new measures, critics have called for more drastic measures, including full lockdowns of at least two weeks. In contrast, Erdogan has suggested some restrictions could be relaxed.
Wilks reported and AP writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.
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