Britain is often said to be two weeks behind France in the new Covid wave — so how bad are things in France? Lille, Grenoble, Lyon and Saint-Étienne have switched to maximum alert, with two thirds of regions on ‘enhanced alert’. Things are at their most worrying in Paris, where hospitals have been given permission to cancel routine surgery. Neither the capital, nor the rest of the country, is overwhelmed — yet.
Covid cases are rising almost as fast as in Britain: some 20,000 new cases were declared yesterday, almost three times the number of confirmed cases in the first wave. The positivity rate (i.e., the rate of people testing positive) is 10 per cent. But hospital caseload is nowhere near what it once was. At the last count, 7,864 Covid patients are in French hospitals — almost double the rate seen in September but barely a quarter of the peak (31,779) seen in April. The intensive care units have 1,448 patients which, while worrying, is not overwhelming for a country with 5,000 intensive care beds. If they do come under pressure, there are plans to add 4,000 extra beds by December.
Things are at their most acute in Paris — but still, only 32 per cent of intensive care beds are occupied by Covid patients. This rises to 40 per cent when you include the wider Ile-de-France area and Aurélien Rousseau, director general of the Regional Health Agency for Ile-de-France (ARS) fears that this figure will rise to 50 per cent ‘within 10 to 15 days.’ The disruption is already hitting standard surgery, which is being cancelled as an increasing number of doctors and nurses are reallocated to look after Covid-19 patients in ICU. Martin Hirsch, who runs a chain of hospitals, has said he’s ‘at risk of having to choose between certain pathologies or certain patients’ in Paris. So the capital’s hospitals may face huge problems — in a fortnight or so. But not yet.
Outside the capital, it’s calmer. In Manche and Calvados, both in the west of France, fewer than 10 per cent of intensive care beds are occupied by coronavirus patients. Meanwhile, in Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin in the east of France, the figure is just 12 per cent. Worrying but, again, not overwhelming.
Three weeks ago, Marseilles was the focus of British attention. The BBC reported that hospital beds were ‘close to saturation.’ But in fact, there has been a stabilisation since late September with only half of ICU beds occupied by Covid patients. Graphs of ICU usage in other regions of France show a situation still nowhere near capacity.
Daphnée Gotheil, a junior doctor at the Necker Hospital in Paris, tells me that the situation is much less severe than in the spring and that, in her view, ‘there is no cause for real concern yet’. And why not? ‘Our hospitals are now better equipped, doctors are more knowledgeable about the virus and they have developed new techniques to treat patients. We do not ventilate patients anywhere near as much — as we know now that it is something to do only as a last resort.’ Eight regions in France still have no Covid patients in ICU beds.
Nationally, the picture is one of uncertainty. Things may soon peak, as they did in Marseilles — or the recent surge in cases may start to test the limits of the hospital system. A live score of the French data, for those interested, can be found here.
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Julie Ezvan is a French journalist working in London.