Covid-19: Is the situation in France’s hospitals as bad as in March?

With more than 1,500 Covid-19 patients in the country’s intensive care hospital units, France is headed down the same path as before the strict, nationwide lockdown in March, hospitals warn. So how bad is the situation now compared to this spring?

Covid-19: Is the situation in France's hospitals as bad as in March?
French hospital workers await arrivals of Covid-19 patients. Photo: AFP

When the French government imposed the nationwide lockdown in March, they did so as a last resort to save the country’s hospitals from buckling under the mounting pressure of new patients. 

While the number of cases recorded every day in France has exceeded the daily tallies from this spring – health authorities now report roughly 15,000 new cases per day as a weekly average – the country's testing capacities has vastly expanded since then and the two situations are not easily comparable. 

What can be compared, however, is the situation in hospitals, as they again to sound the alarm that their capacities are again being strained.

“The last bastion has been reached,” virologist Xavier Lescure told French media on Monday.

Lescure was pointing to the fact that intensive care unit rates are the last ones to increase before death rates. 

When someone gets sick from Covid-19, there is a time-lag of about two weeks before their symptoms potentially turn severe. 

For weeks when France’s Covid-19 numbers were rising this summer, the general increase in new cases did not translate into a spike in hospital numbers, which was largely thanks to that most of the new cases were young and healthy people.

That changed in September when the virus increased its spread among the country's elderly, leading to hospital rates rising with an increasingly rapid pace until intensive care units now have exceeded a volume of Covid-19 patients unseen since the end of May. 

Lescure, who works at the Bichat Hospital in Paris, a reference hospital for Covid-19 patients, called for “draconian measures” to reverse the trend.

That plea has echoed from hospitals in several of the country’s hard-hit areas, which puts more pressure on President Emmanuel Macron, who is widely expected to announce tighter restrictions in a prime-time TV interview Wednesday night.

So is the current situation in French hospitals as bad as it was back in March?

On Monday, October 12th, France topped a threshold of 1,500 intensive care unit patients, 1,539 in total, while the total number of hospital patients with Covid-19 reached 8,671.

Intensive care unit numbers remain low compared to at the peak of the first wave of the virus in early April, when hospitals saw 7,019 intensive care patients (April 4th).

However, the last time France counted around 1,500 intensive care patients, the number more than tripled in one week: from 1,453 patients on March 21st to a total of 5,056 on March 30th.

The graphic below, which is a screenshot from the French public health agency's daily updated website, shows the total number intensive care patients in France from March 18th (one day after lockdown) until October 12th.

Source: Santé Publique France

The graphic illustrates the steep rise in new intensive care patients back in March, which is what hospitals worry about in the coming weeks.

To better understand the increase in intensive care unit patients, another indicator to watch is the number of new admissions per day, as shown in Santé Publique France's graphic below (from the same time period).

Source: Santé Publique France

At the height of the first wave intensive care units saw over 700 new admissions a day, compared to 171 currently.

But looking back to mid March, the rate surged from 242 to 695 new admissions per day from March 20th to 28th – before dropping slightly and then spiking again – spelling trouble for what hospitals warn lies around the next corner.

The new intensive care admissions followed in the same pattern as the number of new general Covid-19 hospitalisations (graphic below). 

Source: Santé Publique France

In just one week, France reported a spike in new Covid-19 patients, from 1,256 per day on March 20th to 3,353 per day on March 28th.

What does this mean?

These numbers illustrate how hospital numbers increased with high intensity over a short period of time in March.

What worries hospitals this time around is not so much the current total number of intensive care unit patients as their potential to double or even triple in just days, potentially overwhelming establishments in hard-hit areas such as Paris and Marseille.

How many intensive care beds has France got?

That is a big controversy in France right now. Health Minister Olivier Véran previously told French media that France had reached a capacity of “nearly 14,000 beds, compared to 5,065 normally.”

However, this number was based on calculations during the height of the first wave of the virus when several hospitals transformed into coronavirus-only establishments, turning operating surgeries into intensive care units in order to deal with the overwhelming demand. The country increased its capacity from 5,000 beds to 10,000 (including temporary beds and a military hospital) although the numbers peaked at 7,000.

Today, the capacity in France remains at 5,000 intensive care beds in total, despite the health ministry outlining a need for 12,000 beds in an official recommendation, published in July.

The government has defended their strategy by saying that intensive care treatment should be a last resort, and other strategies should be prioritised first.

Prime Minister Jean Castex told French media that increasing health care capacities took time, and asked the public to show solidarity with health workers by keeping with public health advice.

READ ALSO: 'No more slackening' warns French PM as two more cities move to maximum Covid-19 alert 

What’s the situation in the different areas?

While nationwide numbers say something about the general situation, the regional differences are significant in France, with hospitals in hotspots like Paris bearing the brunt of seriously ill patients.

The map below shows the number of intensive care unit patients in different parts of France as of October 12th.

Source: Santé Publique France

The greater Paris region Ile-de-France, one of the areas suffering the highest hospital numbers at the moment, has warned that they could soon be overwhelmed by new Covid-19 patients.

Covid-19 patients could occupy 70-90 percent of the capital's total intensive care capacity as early as next week, said Martin Hirsch, the director of 39 hospitals in the greater Paris region Ile-de-France.

“This is inevitable. The situation is serious,” Hirsch told French media on Monday. 

“By around October 24, there will be a minimum of 800 to 1,000 Covid patients in intensive care, representing 70 to 90 percent of our current capacity,” he said.

Similar warnings have echoed from hospital leaders in several of the other eight Covid-19 hubs. A total of nine cities in Paris are currently on “maximum alert” for infections, which means that, among other criteria, Covid-19 patients occupy 30 percent of their intensive care unit capacity.

Hospitals have said they do not want to repeat of the situation in spring, when non-Covid treatments and operations had to be postponed in order to cope with the spike in new patients.

Paris' hospitals have already begun cancelling and rearranging 20 percent of their non-priority treatments, Hirsch told Le Parisien.

“What is happening now has serious consequences in terms of public health, for the protection of all citizens,” he said.

“No one wants a choice to be made between (prioritising) patients or diseases. It is therefore today that we must act,” he said.


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Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

With a sharp rise in reported cases in recent weeks, France appears to be in the middle of a new wave of Covid infections - so what measures are the government taking to control it?

Return of the health pass? How France plans to tackle new wave of Covid cases

Recorded case numbers in France are now over 50,000 a week, and have been since the beginning of June – this is a long way short of the 350,000 weekly cases recorded in January but still the highest since May and representing a steady an increase of 57 percent on the previous week.

Hospital admissions are also on the rise – standing at 707 admissions on Friday, June 24th compared to 400 daily admissions just two weeks earlier.

So what is the French government doing about it?

Since March, almost all Covid-related restrictions have been lifted in France – the health pass is no longer required for everyday activities such as visiting a bar or going to the gym and face masks are now merely advised in all indoor locations. Only hospitals and other health establishments such as nursing homes still have mandatory rules on face masks and health passes.

For international travel, fully vaccinated arrivals from most countries – including the UK, US and the whole of the EU – need only to show proof of vaccination, while unvaccinated travellers need to show proof of a recent negative Covid test – full details HERE.

Health pass

A proposed bill from the health ministry that was leaked to French media talks about re-imposing some form of pass sanitaire (health pass) to get numbers under control.

Some caveats to add here is that the document is only a proposal at this stage and the government has explicitly rules out – for the moment – reintroducing the vaccine pass. The health pass can be used to show either proof of vaccination or a recent negative Covid test, so it is less restrictive for the unvaccinated.

The document suggests re-introducing a health pass for travel – both to and from France – not for everyday activities like going to a café.

Testing and contact tracing

The bill also proposes extending the software involved in contact tracing and the Covid testing programme until March 2023, although this is described as a ‘precaution’.

Testing remains available on a walk-in basis at most French pharmacies and by appointment at health centres and medical labs. Tests are free for fully-vaccinated residents of France who have a carte vitale. Those are only visiting France, who are not registered in the French health system or who are not vaccinated have to pay – prices are capped at €22 for an antigen test and €54 for a PCR test.

READ ALSO How tourists in France can get a Covid test


The government’s Covid vaccine adviser Alain Fischer told France Info that he was in favour of making face masks compulsory on public transport again and said it is ‘being discussed” at government level.

At present masks are not required, but are recommended, especially on busy services where it is impossible to practice social distancing.

Epidemiologist Pascal Crépey said: “In crowded trains, the risk of being in the presence of infected people is high. It would be a good idea for the population to wear the mask, to protect especially the most fragile and avoid massive infection rates.”

Local measures

French local authorities also have the power to impose certain types of restrictions if their area has a particularly high rate of infections.

At present, none have done so, but Nice mayor Christian Estrosi has spoken in favour of possibly bringing back the vaccine pass over the summer.

Second booster shots

A second booster shot of the Covid vaccine is now available to all over 60s and anyone who has a long-term medical condition or who is otherwise at risk from Covid.

It is recommended that the government increase public messaging advising those in high risk groups to get the second booster shot. The medical regular HAS has advised combining second booster shots with the seasonal flu vaccine campaign in September and October.

France is not, at present, considering widening the campaign to the entire popular, but the EU’s vaccine commissioner Thierry Breton says that if necessary, there would be enough doses to cover the whole population.