‘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 public urged to wear face masks again on public transport

With France in the middle of a new wave of Covid-19, the country's health minister has urged the public to once again wear face masks on public transport and in crowded spaces.

French public urged to wear face masks again on public transport

With cases on the rise again, French Health Minister Brigitte Bourguignon said she is “[asking] the French to put masks back on in transport” in an interview with RTL on Monday, 

For the time being, however, she stressed it was just advice, rather than an obligation, and masks have in fact been recommended on public transport since the legal requirement to wear them was lifted in May. 

However with France reporting over 50,000 daily cases of Covid-19 the government is clearly concerned by the current wave of the pandemic.

Bourguignon said that “we must protect ourselves and protect others,” adding that wearing a mask is “a civic gesture.”

She urged people to don their masks as soon as they see a crowded train or station.

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

In addition to public transport, Bourguignon is also asking the French to once again mask-up in “all crowded, enclosed areas.”

Currently, masks are only required in hospitals, health centres and places that have vulnerable residents such as nursing homes. They are recommended in crowded spaces where it is impossible to practice social distancing.