France on Monday announced that more than 20,000 people had now died from the coronavirus in the country after 547 new deaths, even as tentative signs grew that the epidemic was steadying.
“Tonight, our country has passed a barrier that is symbolic and particularly painful,” top health official Jerome Salomon told reporters, announcing a total death toll of 20,265 people while welcoming new falls in the numbers in hospital and intensive care.
The health chief said the coronavirus had now killed far more than all previous flu epidemics and even the deadly heatwave of 2003, when 19,000 died.
France is the fourth country to record more than 20,000 deaths, following the United States — by far the worst affected worldwide — Italy and Spain.
Salomon added however that the “speed of the epidemic had slowed rapidly.”
Of the 20, 265 deaths, 12,513 had occurred in hospitals around the country and 7,752 in nursing homes.
He also welcomed data indicating that a person with COVID-19 in France was now infecting on average less than one other person, as opposed to three before the country went into lockdown more than a month ago.
“This is how we will manage to put the brakes on the epidemic,” he said.
France still counted more than 30,000 coronavirus patients in hospital including just under 6,000 in intensive care, although the numbers continued to fall.
“The fall… is being confirmed but it remains very slight,” said Salomon.
He also said that France was far from having reached any kind of “herd immunity” (immunité collective) suggesting that data indicated less than 10 percent of the population in France had been infected with the virus.
“The levels of immunity are probably higher in the areas that have been worst affected,” he said.
“The collective immunity in France is low, as many other countries are indicating as well.”
France has been in lockdown since March 17 in a bid to slow the spread of the epidemic. But President Emmanuel Macron announced last week that the lockdown could begin to be eased from May 11.
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.
Unlike some European countries, France has been giving daily tolls of deaths in nursing homes.
In one old people's home in Mars-la-Tour in the northeastern Moselle region, 22 of 51 residents out died from COVID-19 over the last two weeks, its director said.
In a press conference on Sunday, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe warned it would take a long time to defeat the epidemic, emphasising the initial easing would only be partial.
“Our life from May 11 will not be like our life before, not immediately, and probably not for a long time,” he said.