‘Half our Covid patients are under 43’: How the third wave has left a Paris hospital struggling to cope

As Covid-19 rips through the impoverished Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis, doctors are struggling to find beds for critical patients and teachers are walking out over a spike in infections in schools.

'Half our Covid patients are under 43': How the third wave has left a Paris hospital struggling to cope
Staff treat a critically ill Covid patient in the Delafontaine hospital in the Paris region. Photo: Thomas Samson/AFP

At the Delafontaine hospital, in the heart of mainland France’s poorest region, the ravages of France’s third wave of coronavirus infections are plain to see.

A 30-year-old man, who had no prior medical condition before being struck down by Covid-19, wakes up after three weeks in intensive care.

“This one has to get better,” one nurse says to an orderly. “But I’ve learned not to have too much hope,” she adds, after a moment’s reflection.

As the number of critically ill patients across France soars past 5,000 – more that at the height of the second wave last autumn – Delafontaine has had to add eight more beds in intensive care, taking the total to 26.

With doctors in the Paris region warning they will soon have to start deciding who to save, two patients have already been transferred from Delafontaine to other facilities.

Daniel Da Silva, the head of Delafontaine’s intensive care unit, is hopeful he will never have to turn patients away.

But he is worried about the profile of people now presenting severe symptoms in an area of densely-inhabited high-rise housing estates with a large immigrant population.

Half of the hospital’s Covid-19 patients are under 43 years of age, who are far down the waiting list for a vaccine being administered in descending order of age.

And in a first for the hospital since the pandemic began, pregnant women are winding up in intensive care.

“We had to intubate and carry out an emergency Caesarean on a young woman aged 23,” Da Silva says, calling it “unprecedented”.

Seine-Saint-Denis currently has the second-highest incidence rates of Covid-19 in France, with 783 per 100,000 people, more than twice the national average.

Last week, around 30 teachers at a high school in the town of Drancy walked off the job saying they were in “imminent danger” of falling prey to a pandemic that has killed 20 people among its students’ families in a year.

On Wednesday evening President Emmanuel Macron, who has so far resisted imposing a third countrywide lockdown, will address the nation to announce further restrictions.

READ ALSO What can we expect from Macron’s TV announcement

Da Silva says his biggest concern is how to keep his unit staffed, with more and more carers getting written off work for stress or anxiety.

“People are exhausted and the issue of post-traumatic stress from the first wave is far from being resolved,” he said.

Alice Auroux, a nurse who said she had not had a proper holiday in a year, gave voice to the despair that many healthworkers have expressed in the face of the government’s failure so far to impose a stay-at-home order.

“It feels as if we’re not getting on top of it,” she said.

Mathilde Azzi, a young doctor who has cancelled her holidays and doubled her shifts to remain on the frontline, expressed particular concern for non-Covid patients.

Like all hospitals in the Paris area, Delafontaine has been ordered to cut back surgery to make space for Covid patients.

“They (non-Covid patients) are the ones who will pay the price,” Azzi said, noting a decline in the number of patients being admitted for heart attacks, a trend she believed was caused by people failing to see a doctor on time.

As France girds for a further curtailment of freedoms, Da Silva said he understood the toll on the economy and nation’s psychological wellbeing under stay-at-home orders.

“But at the same time I see what we’re dealing with here. One thing is certain – with lockdowns, we saved more lives than we can count.”

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French MPs vote to add the right to abortion to the constitution

Lawmakers in the French parliament voted on Thursday to add the right to abortion to the constitution in response to recent changes in the United States and Poland.

French MPs vote to add the right to abortion to the constitution

Members of parliament from the left-wing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) party and the ruling centrist coalition agreed on Thursday on the wording of the new clause, which was then put to a larger vote.

“The law guarantees the effectiveness and equal access to the right to voluntarily end a pregnancy,” reads the proposed constitutional addition to article 66.

It was passed in the Assemblée nationale with a large majority – 337 to 32 against, but still needs to be approved in the Senate.    

“It’s a big step… but it’s just the first step,” said centrist MP Sacha Houlie from Macron’s Renaissance party.

The initiative was prompted by the US Supreme Court’s explosive decision this year to overturn the nationwide right to termination procedures for Americans.

In Europe, the conservative government of Poland has also heavily restricted abortion rights.

LFI lawmaker Mathilde Panot said the move was necessary in France to “protect ourselves against a regression”.   

In a speech to parliament, she cited the late French writer and women’s rights activist Simone de Beauvoir.

“We only need a political, economic or religious crisis for the rights of women to come into question,” she said.

The agreement was a rare instance of cooperation between the hard-left LFI and the centrist allies of President Emmanuel Macron – who no longer have an overall majority in the National Assembly.

A previous attempt to inscribe the right to abortion as well as contraception into the constitution, with different wording, was rejected by the conservative-dominated Senate in October.

Many conservative and Catholic politicians have announced their misgivings, seeing it as unnecessary given the legal protections already in place.

“It appears totally misplaced to open a debate which, although it exists in the United States, does not exist in France,” far-right leader Marine Le Pen said in a statement this week.

“No political group is thinking about questioning access to abortions,” she said.

Parliamentary records initially showed Le Pen voting in favour of the change on Thursday, but these were later corrected to reveal she was not there for the vote. Her spokesman said this was due to a medical issue. MPs from her party and the right-wing Les Républicains abstained.

Abortion was legalised in France in 1974 in a law championed by health minister Simone Veil, a women’s rights icon granted the rare honour of burial at the Pantheon by Macron upon her death in 2018.