France's new health minister Olivier Véran has confirmed that the number of confirmed cases in France now stands at 100, all but 12 of which have been diagnosed since the major outbreak began in Italy over the weekend.
Echoing the words of President Emmanuel Macron earlier in the day, he said: “We are preparing for an epidemic.”
He added: “We are now moving to stage two. The virus is circulating in our country and we must stop its spread.”
Existing hygiene advice – regular handwashing, using disposable tissues, covering you mouth with you elbow when you cough – remains in place, but the minister added: “I now recommend people avoid shaking hands.”
France has launched a special hotline number so worried members of the public can seek help and advice that is manned 24/7. The number is 0800 130 000. The emergency number 15 should only be used if the a member of the public believes they are suffering from a medical condition linked to coronavirus.
Jérome Salomon, left, and health minister Olivier Véran. Photo: AFP
Of the 88 new cases announced this week, nine people are in a serious condition, including two who had both recently returned from Egypt as part of a tour group.
The official total of 100 includes 11 who fully recovered from the virus earlier this month and 2 fatalities, one a 60-year-old teacher from northern France the other an elderly Chinese tourist.
Jérôme Salomon, Director General of health, said that the new cases were all close associates or family members of the cases diagnosed earlier in the week.
The biggest cluster is in the Oise département, the home of the 60-year-old technology teacher who died of the virus on Tuesday, and Haute-Savoie in eastern France.
There are also confirmed cases in Lyon, Strasbourg, Montpellier, Nice and the Seine-Saint-Denis département on the outskirts of Paris.
French authorities have been expecting a surge in the number of cases ever since the outbreak in Italy, but are concerned that the teacher who died had not travelled to an infected zone and had no obvious contact with anyone who had.
A hunt has now been launched to try and identify the 'patient zero'.
Emmanuel Macron and France's new health minister Olivier Véran visiting staff at Pitié Salpêtrère hospital. Photo: AFP
“We are facing a crisis, an epidemic that is coming,” said French president Emmanuel Macron while visiting staff at the La Pitié-Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, where the first French person carrying the new coronavirus died on Tuesday.
“We know that we're only at the beginning… we're going to try with all our caretakers to make the right decisions,” Macron said alongside Health Minister Olivier Veran.
“You had a case here… I know this affected many of your teams,” he said, pledging to address the crisis “truthfully” so that measures can be taken “calmly”.
#Coronavirus Aujourd’hui, la meilleure façon de se protéger, c’est d’adopter les gestes simples recommandés par nos médecins pour lutter contre la propagation du virus :
– se laver les mains une fois par heure
– tousser dans son coude
– utiliser des mouchoirs à usage unique. pic.twitter.com/DJssCnZyuA
— Edouard Philippe (@EPhilippePM) February 27, 2020
French authorities have been stepping up preparations ever since the major outbreak of coronavirus over the border in Italy was reported over the weekend.
French ministers held an emergency meeting on Sunday night to discuss the situation in Italy, and began stepping up preparations in France, including preparing 70 extra hospitals to receive coronavirus patients and tripling the resources for the country's testing programme.
However authorities said they would not be closing the border with Italy.
“It doesn't make much sense,” said Jérôme Salomon. “Not to mention that you can travel by land, sea and air, or go through Italy and Austria.”
Anyone who has recently returned from Italy or China has been told to self-isolate for two weeks in an attempt to contain the spread of the virus.
On its website, the French government urged those returning from the listed places to “avoid all non-essential outings”, giving as examples “big gatherings, restaurants, the cinema”, for two weeks after their return and to keep their children home from daycare or school.
Employees and students were encouraged to work from home “in so far as possible” and to avoid meetings, elevators and cafeterias.
Schools are currently asking all pupils recently returned from China, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea or Italy to stay at home for a fortnight.
Italy is a popular holiday destination for French families during the February holidays, and many schools also run trips there over the break.
Many schools have reported issuing advice to pupils to stay at home, and there are expected to be more on Monday when the new term starts for schools in zone B – Aix-Marseille and Nice.
France was the first country in Europe to confirm cases of coronavirus on January 24th, although then health minister Agnès Buzyn said at the time she believed that was simply because France had developed a better testing protocol than many other countries.
France initially saw five cases diagnosed in late January, all people who had recently travelled from China, where the outbreak began.
A French health worker who had treated a patient then became the sixth person to be infected.
The next six cases were all centred on a ski resort in the French Alps where a British man who had recently returned from Asia passed the virus on to a group of people who had been staying in the same ski chalet.
Apart from the elderly Chinese tourist all 11 recovered.
Until Tuesday, there had been no new cases for over a fortnight, but as more cases were confirmed in Italy, then Spain, Austria and Switzerland, French authorities prepared themselves again.
The World Health Organisation reports that of the people who contract the virus, the vast majority will make a full recovery and only five percent of cases are considered critical.
The people who have died so far have generally been elderly or with underlying health conditions.
France has in fact been officially in an epidemic state for normal seasonal flu since the start of February as thousands have fallen sick. Since the start of the flu season in November, 530 people have been admitted to intensive care and 44 people have died.
In France authorities are asking people who think they may have coronavirus symptoms not to go to hospital or their doctor's surgery.
Fièvre – fever
Maux de tête – headache
Courbatures – aches
Toux – cough
Difficultés respiratoires – breathing difficulties
Un rhume – a cold
La grippe – the flu
Coronavirus – coronavirus
SAMU – the French ambulance service, or service d'aide médicale urgente, to give them their full name