‘Race against time’: France scrambles to slow Covid hospital admissions

Fears grow that Europe’s hospitals could be overwhelmed by second wave

A doctor, wearing a protective mask and a protective suit, works in a pulmonology unit at the hospital in Vannes where patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are treated, France, October 12, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

French health authorities say they are in a “race against time” to stop their hospitals from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.

The number of people being treated in French intensive care units exceeded 1,500 on Monday for the first time in nearly five months.

The surge on the continent comes after UK health officials said they were treating more coronavirus patients now than they did when lockdown restrictions were first announced in March.

In Covid-hit Liverpool, the major hospitals have a capacity of about 400 beds for coronavirus patients, and are now thought to be treating about 250, prompting authorities to put three Nightingale overflow hospitals on standby.

Echoing the concern of British doctors, Paris regional health director Aurelian Rousseau said hospital admissions could quickly spiral out of control.

He told BFM TV: “As with tidal waves, it might seem like we have time, but actually, in the end, it’s a race.

“We’re at that point where we’re entering a race against time.”

The 1,539 French Covid patients receiving intensive care is still almost five times lower than an April 8 high of 7,148, but also four times higher than a July 31 low of 371.

And as there are normally more people hospitalised with various illnesses in the autumn than in spring, health experts fear the hospital system could be overwhelmed if nothing is done to contain the second wave.

With countries from Spain to Ukraine posting record increases in recent days, authorities are struggling to devise restrictions that slow the spread while not pushing the economy over the edge and sparking public unrest.

Lower death and hospitalisation rates stoked an impression that the disease has lost its bite, sparking resistance to tougher restrictions.

A nurse, wearing a protective mask and a protective suit, works in a pulmonology unit at the hospital in Vannes where patients suffering from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) are treated, France, October 12, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

But after the pandemic’s European resurgence was fuelled by younger people, the contagion is spreading to more vulnerable individuals.

“There is transmission between the generations, and that is our major worry,” Mr Rousseau said.

Germany is feeling a similar sense of urgency, despite containing the surge in the disease better than many of its neighbours.

Chancellor Angela Merkel warned last week that the country is reaching a watershed moment that will determine whether it regains or loses control of the pandemic.

In Germany, where hospitalisation numbers are still comparatively low - fewer than 500 people were in intensive care as of last week - authorities still warned against complacency.

“We fear that in the near future, these numbers will rise considerably again on the normal wards and also in intensive care,” Susanne Herold, a Frankfurt university professor, said.

“We are preparing for a new wave of patients that are seriously ill.”

Speaking on Monday, England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said coronavirus deaths would undoubtedly surge in the UK.

He said: “We have baked in additional hospital admissions and sadly we have also baked in additional deaths.”

There were 3,837 Covid patients in UK hospitals yesterday, with 442 requiring ventilator beds.