Turkey's pandemic strategy hinges on hazmat-suited gumshoes

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In this Friday, May 15, 2020 photo, Dr. Melek Nur Aslan, left, the local health director for Fatih, a large district in the historic peninsula of Istanbul briefs a team of contact tracers with Turkey's Health Ministry's coronavirus contact tracing team, clad in white protective gear, masks and face shields. Teams of contact tracers in Istanbul, the epicenter of the pandemic in Turkey and its most populous city, and also nationwide, are going house to house to test people experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and inform patients on isolation. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

ISTANBUL – They see themselves as public health detectives, working 24/7 to track the coronavirus' insidious spread through a country of 83 million, blending door-to-door hoof work with mobile apps, CCTV footage and, if needed, police backup.

Instead of global coronavirus testing, Turkey has based its pandemic response on partial lockdowns and work by armies of contact tracers, who identify people possibly infected by a COVID-19 patient and seek to stamp out the fire before it consumes a neighborhood, town or region.

Officials from both the Turkish government and the local World Health Organization say the tactic has paid off.

Health Minister Fahrettin Koca says it's brought the pandemic “under control,” with virus deaths and confirmed infections falling. The health ministry has recorded 151,615 confirmed cases — which places Turkey in the global top 10 for infections according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University — and 4,199 deaths.

“We brought the sickness’ spread under control by monitoring the source,” Koca said.

A tracer's job is to find out who an infected person has come in close and unprotected contact with for more than 15 minutes. Once identified, these people are instructed to self-quarantine and are tracked by a mobile phone application. If they develop coronavirus symptoms, they are tested.

Turkey takes quarantines seriously — breaches can be punished by fines up to $162 and a maximum 1-year prison term.

When Istanbul resident Betul Sahbaz, 47, started showing symptoms after her flatmate tested positive for COVID-19, she called a health care line.