PARIS – France is facing a worrying spike in the coronavirus crisis, the government said on Friday, warning that the number of new cases is rising rapidly and the number of hospital admissions is increasing.
Many residents expected new restrictions, especially after the government’s Scientific Council announced earlier this week that the authorities would have to take “tough measures”.
However, authorities did not announce any new rules and instead promised to improve on the country’s extensive testing program, which has been plagued by delays in recent weeks, and urged the French to continue social distancing measures.
The number of new cases has recently increased in France, where almost 31,000 people have died from the coronavirus so far. The country has registered around 54,000 new cases in the past seven days – less than Spain, but like far more than other neighboring countries Italy or Germany.
There were nearly 10,000 new confirmed cases on Thursday alone, a record since the pandemic began. The increase in new cases is partly due to widespread testing, but the positivity rate for these tests has also increased – it was 5.4 percent this week from 1.5 at the end of July – meaning the virus is also picking up speed .
French Prime Minister Jean Castex said in a televised address on Friday that the authorities were particularly concerned about a renewed increase in the number of hospital stays, particularly among the elderly.
“This shows that there is no Maginot Line,” said Castex, who spoke on the French coronavirus response after a special cabinet meeting, referring to national fortifications built in the 1930s. While the virus still mainly spreads among younger people, it “inevitably” reaches more vulnerable populations.
Younger people are less likely to develop severe forms of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus that has so far limited the impact of the surge in cases on the French healthcare system.
But last week the surge in case numbers was highest among those 75 and over, according to the. There was an increase of 44 percent compared to the previous week national health authority, who found in a recent report that young adults were “less systematic” about social distancing.
In his address, Mr. Castex called for renewed discipline. “We have to show responsibility at all times for a few more months,” he said.
But Mr Castex ruled out another nationwide lockdown, saying the government trusts local authorities to act on a case-by-case basis. The mayor of Nice, for example, decided this week to ban all visits to retirement and nursing homes.
42 of the 100 French departments are now red, Castex said, which means that in each area, authorities can limit public gatherings or business hours at their discretion.
Mr Castex cited three areas – the cities of Bordeaux and Marseille and the overseas territory of Guadeloupe – where the increase in cases and hospital stays were particularly worrying.
There are currently over 5,000 patients hospitalized for Covid-19 in France, of which around 600 are in intensive care. That’s still far less than at the peak of the outbreak in April, when over 32,000 people were hospitalized for the coronavirus. In the past week, however, around 300 new Covid 19 patients were admitted every day – about twice as many as this summer.
The authorities want to emphasize – and experts immediately acknowledge – that France is better prepared than it was this springwhen the first virus wave hit. But complacency is dangerous, they warn.
“We have tests and masks,” said Dominique Costagliola, epidemiologist at the Pierre Louis Institute for Epidemiology and Public Health in Paris. “But as long as the deaths don’t increase and the intensive care units aren’t overloaded, many people think that calling the situation serious is overreacting.”
If the authorities wait for this to happen, Ms. Costagliola said: “It will be too late to act.”
Compared to the spring when authorities put a strict nationwide lockdown, France has significantly increased its testing capacity, averaging over a million tests per week, from 500,000 in August. The tests are free of charge regardless of symptoms or possible contacts and do not require a doctor’s prescription.
But the laboratories are struggling to keep up. In Paris, it sometimes takes up to a week for the results to be available again – although Health Minister Olivier Véran has stated that 80 percent of the cases the results were available within 36 hours.
Lionel Barrand, president of the Union of Young Medical Biologists, said his laboratory near Strasbourg in eastern France had seen such a surge that it did not have enough machines, reagents and staff to process the test results quickly.
“The strategy is bad because it is not focused enough,” said Barrand. “It’s better to run 500,000 targeted tests with quick results than 1 million tests with an eight day delay.”
Mr Castex admitted Friday that while the increase in testing was “excellent news” it had sometimes resulted in “too long waiting times”, he said laboratories would now allow specific time windows for symptomatic patients or their close contacts.
He also said the government would discontinue 2,000 contact tracers and that isolation would be more strictly enforced for people who tested positive, although he did not provide details. Mr Castex also announced that the isolation period would be reduced from 14 to seven days, in line with recent studies that showed that the risk of contamination dropped sharply after the eighth day of infection.
Jean-François Delfraissy, an immunologist who heads the government’s scientific council, said France must find a delicate balance to “live with the virus”.
“During the summer we all had to blow off some steam,” said Delfraissy said Europa 1 radio on Friday. Now he said: “We have to pull ourselves together again a little.”
Constant Méheut contributed to the coverage.