France on Friday reported 761 more deaths from COVID-19 in hospitals and nursing homes over the last 24 hours, bringing the total toll in the country from the epidemic to 18,681.
The 761 new fatalities includes 418 in hospitals around the country and 343 in elderly nursing homes.
But top health official Jerome Salomon told reporters that in more positive news the total numbers in hospital (31, 190 as of Friday) fell for the third day in a row — with 115 fewer patients.
“It's a slow but steady drop,” said Salomon.
“The first wave was very much alleviated by all the French people, by respecting physical and social distancing measures, by respecting confinement and 'barrier measures',” said Salomon.
“We have strongly broken the epidemic which at the beginning was very contagious, with a virus that was being transmitted to a very large number of people,” said Salomon.
But the health chief warned: “After the confinement the French will also have the responsibility to curb the risk of the virus. It will still be present in Europe.”
Importantly the numbers in intensive care fell for the ninth consecutive day with 221 fewer patients.
The country's month-long lockdown “is starting to bear fruit,” said Salomon, while urging: “We have to continue our efforts in confinement.”
Despite the positive news around hospital numbers there were still just over 6,000 coronavirus patients in intensive care on Friday night. France's intensive care capacity before the epidemic began was around 5,000 beds.
Neighbouring Germany, which declared on Friday it has the virus under control, has registered far fewer COVID-19 deaths than France. But Salomon said it was too early to make comparisons between individual countries.
“There is a heterogenity in Europe that we can't explain at the moment. There are countries which are very affected — like Belgium which is worse hit than France — and Britain as well is badly hit.”
France has been in lockdown since March 17 in a bid to slow the spread of the epidemic. But President Emmanuel Macron announced this week that the lockdown could begin to be eased from May 11.
He said schools could gradually reopen then but cafes, cinemas and cultural venues would remain closed, and there could be no summer festivals until mid-July at the earliest.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and Health Minister Olivier Veran are due on Sunday to give a news conference where they are expected to outline how the lockdown can be eased.