France reinforces testing and self-isolation rules for new Covid variants

France reinforces testing and self-isolation rules for new Covid variants
A nurse inserts a Covid test into the nose of a pupil in a school on the island of Corsica on January 29th. Photo: AFP
The French health ministry has toughened up its testing, tracing and self-isolating strategy in an effort to contain the spread of the new Covid-19 variants across the country.

On Sunday, the health ministry sent a note outlining the new rules to country's health departments.

“Given the progress of the spread of the variants around the country,” it stated, “extra measures are put in place.”

Three new Covid variants have so far been detected in France – those first discovered in the UK, South Africa and Brazil.

The UK variant has spread the most – scientists have predicted it will dominate the country by mid March – but health authorities are particularly worried about the other two variants, as preliminary data indicates that the AstraZeneca vaccine might not offer sufficient protection against the South African variant. 

These are the new rules.

All new cases to be analysed

Whenever a person tests positive for Covid-19, the lab must do another test – an RT-PCR screening test – within 36 hours, to check whether or not it is one of the new variants.

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France has been aiming to step up sequencing of positive Covid tests in order to establish how widespread the different variants have become.

Public health agency Santé Publique France last week released regional data based on a flash survey of 136 labs spread over the 13 regions of mainland France, plus French overseas territories, which covered 95,000 tests.

MAP How the new variants of Covid are spreading in France

New variants must self-isolate longer

Those infected by one of the two newest variants, those first discovered in South Africa or Brazil, must self-isolate for 10 days instead of seven, according to the new rules. After that they may only exit quarantine upon taking a test that comes back negative. If the test comes back positive they must self-isolate for another seven days.

Those who test positive for the variant first discovered in the UK are not subject to stricter self-isolation rules and may continue to follow the general rules.

School rules reinforced

As part of this plan to improve control over the new variants, the government has also banned the use of fabric masks in schools, asking that all pupils wear surgical masks of the more protective type 'category 1'.

A class will also immediately close if a pupil is discovered to be infected by the variants first discovered in South Africa or the Brazil. If one pupil is a contact case for a parent or sibling diagnosed with the variants, the class will also close.

Immediate testing of contact cases

Anyone who is identified as a contact case of either the South African or Brazilian variants are urged to get immediately tested, with health authorities asked to offer them a test the same day, according to the new rules. 

If their test comes back positive, they will have to take another RT-PCR sequencing test that will be sent to a lab for analysis, in accordance with the rules outlined above. Those identified as having one of these two variants will be offered the possibility of having a domestic nurse come check up on them.

Does France have the capacity to do this?

France has massively ramped up its testing capacity since the beginning of the pandemic and is now testing four people per second every day of the week, said Health Minister Olivier Véran during the government's Covid press conference last Thursday.

Whereas in the early days of the mass testing efforts in autumn people sometimes waited so much as nine days to get their results back, Véran said 92 percent of all tests now come back within 24 hours.

The health minister also said it now takes on average half a day to get an appointment, in contrast with the long lines of early-morning queues seen in autumn of people standing for hours outside laboratories across the country hoping to get a test slot.


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