The one-day death toll of 509 on April 1st was the highest so far recorded in France and was a slight rise on the 499 reported on Tuesday.
The death toll refers to patients who have died in hospitals since the epidemic began but the real figure is likely higher given those who died in care homes for the elderly have not been included in the data.
In his evening press conference France's Director General of Health Jérôme Salomon said the number of coronavirus patients in hospital had risen to 24,639, a rise of 1,882 on Tuesday's total.
Significantly, the number of patients in intensive care (réanimation) had risen sharply to 6,017, up from 5,565 on Tuesday. The initial capacity of intensive care units in France – around 5,500 beds – had now been surpassed, Salomon said.
Some 34 percent of those in intensive care were under 60 and 80 of those patients were under 30, the health chief said.
On a more positive note he reported that 10,935 patients had recovered from the virus, including 1,491 who had left hospitalin the past 24 hours.
Some 2,227 of those patients in intensive care were in hospitals in the greater Paris region of Île-de-France, the regional health authority said on Wednesday. That number reflected a rise of 11 percent on Tuesday.
France's Health Minister Oliver Véran told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday that the epidemic in France was on a trajectory that was “extremely serious and worrying… the situation remains extremely tense.”
Véran also added that France has “never carried out as many medical evacuations in our country as in the past 15 days,” referring to the major operation to move critical patients out of overwhelmed hospitals in the Paris region and eastern France to other parts of the country.
Some 320 nurses and hospital workers were being reposted to the Paris region and the east from other parts of the country to help ease the pressure on their colleagues.
Lockdown likely to only end gradually
French PM Edouard Philippe told the parliamentary committee that the government was unlikely to end the lockdown – which he recently extended until April 15th, for the whole country at the same time.
“It is likely that we are not moving towards an end of confinement that would be in one move, everywhere and for everyone” he declared during his hearing with the National Assembly. He added that the end date could to subject to where people live, testing and their age.
“We are working and testing scenarios,” said Philippe before adding later in the hearing that “I don't know the time table yet. The method will be progressive.”
Health chief Salomon added: “The French people have understood that confinement will not be abruptly ended” with a return to how things were before.
“How will it be done? Progressively? By region? All these questions will be considered by experts. There is no miracle solution,” he added.
“We need to evaluate the impact of this confinement. In two to three days we will be able to see if fewer patients are admitted to intensive care.
“When will we see a decline in the number of patients in a serious condition?” said Salomon adding that the time will come when authorities will be able to reflect on the strategy of ending the confinement.
Philippe said that 359,000 fines had been haded out to those deemed to have flouted the strict lockdown rules which have confined French people to their homes and only permits them to leave for certain reasons such as shopping or urgent health visits.
Philippe told MPs that fines can go up to €1,500 for repeated offences, and “4 violations within 30 days constitute an offence that the judge can punish with a jail sentence of 6 months, a fine of €3,750 “and a suspension of the driving licence.”
France is currently carrying out 30,000 tests a day, far fewer than in neighbouring Germany, a weakness that has been repeatedly noted by the opposition.
But France is hoping to greatly ramp up testing in the coming days and weeks with the arrival of serology blood tests and then rapid tests that can provide results in minutes.
The government's strategy is aimed at limiting the peak of the epidemic so that the health system is not overwhelmed.