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PANDEMIC

Pandemic leaves French hospital interns at breaking point

After a year working brutally long hours on the "Covid front-line", hospital interns in France are at breaking point, to the extent that some of them have even committed suicide, according to a national union.

Hospital interns in France are breaking under pressure
Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

“These interns are invisible, but they are front-line soldiers,” hospital clinical psychologist Anne Rocher told AFP.

France has over 300,000 medical student interns, whose average age is 25. In theory, they work 48-hour weeks, “but nobody cares” about that, said Marie Saleten, one of the interns and vice-president of the union for Paris hospitals interns.

According to a study carried out over a three-month period in 2019 by the national interns’ union ISNI, 58-hour weeks were actually the norm.

But with the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic, that figure has risen to around 80 hours per week, according to Saleten.

“They are on call 24 hours a day, and during the pandemic, you don’t get to shut your eyes, not even for a micro-nap,” said ISNI chief Gaetan Casanova. “It’s too much and everyone is paying the price, caregivers and patients. Everyone is in danger,” Casanova warned.

Health Minister Olivier Véran met with representatives of ISNI and other intern groups on Thursday. “Together, we are committed to improving their working conditions, starting with their working hours,” the minister tweeted following the meeting, but ISNI said the responses it had received were too vague.

‘Silent tribute’

Since the start of 2021, five hospital interns have committed suicide. That was equivalent to “a suicide every 18 days,” said Casanova.

ISNI organised a “silent tribute” to the dead outside the health ministry, attended by around 40 people, including interns and relatives of the deceased.

The names of the interns who had taken their own lives – Valentin, Tristan, Quentin, Elise, Florian – were displayed on blackboards while a banner reading “Hospitals are killing interns. Help us to live” was displayed at the entrance to the ministry.

“It’s been a year since the first signs of Covid and nothing has changed,” said Saleten.

Psychologist Rocher pointed out that the medics were still relatively young, but were expected to take care of the tens of thousands who have died of coronavirus and the many more who have recovered.

She voiced admiration for the young medics who work “non-stop in the ward with patients and families”.

This is more true than ever during the pandemic when the care required in intensive care units “is very hard, both physically and mentally. And it’s also repetitive”.

“It wears you down slowly,” especially over a year and more, she added. “Sometimes someone will crack, but they quickly return to treating patients because they don’t want to increase the burden on their co-interns,” said the psychologist.

The pandemic had strengthened “the sense of the group and the importance of relations with colleagues,” she said.

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HEALTH

Reader Question: Can I get a third Covid booster shot in France?

As France launches its autumn vaccine campaign, almost half of those eligible for the second booster jab in France have already received it. This has left some wondering whether they could qualify for a third booster, using the new dual-strain vaccines.

Reader Question: Can I get a third Covid booster shot in France?

Question: I’m in my 70s and I had my second booster back in the summer but now I see that the new dual-strain vaccines are available – should I be getting an extra booster with the new type of vaccine?

French health authorities launched the autumn booster campaign on October 3rd includes newly authorised dual-strain vaccines – such as the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine adapted to BA.1, the Moderna vaccine adapted to BA.1, and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine adapted to BA.4/5 – which are designed to combat the Omicron variant.

It will be followed by the seasonal flu vaccination campaign in mid October.

READ MORE: When, where and how to get flu shots and Covid boosters this autumn in France

In France, about 6.3 million people have received a second booster dose, “or 41 percent of the eligible population,” said the Directorate General of Health (DGS) to Ouest France.

Currently only those in high risk groups are eligible for a second booster shot, including pregnant women, the elderly those with medical conditions or carers – find the full list here.

As almost half of the eligible population have already received a fourth vaccine, many are wondering whether they will be eligible for a fifth (or third booster) in order to access the new dual-strain vaccine.  

According to Virginie, a representative from HAS – France’s health authority – the organisation “no longer thinks in terms of doses for high-risk people and immunocompromised patients.”

Specifically, the HAS recommends that a new injection be given – and if possible one of the dual-strain vaccines – “regardless of the number of injections received up to now”.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Who qualifies for a second Covid vaccine booster in France?

However, French health authorities specified that the additional booster should “respect the minimum recommended time between two doses.”

“This depends based on your profile – for people aged 80 and over, residents of nursing homes or long-term care units (USLD) and those who are immunocompromised, the wait-time is three months between jabs. For the others, the delay is set at six months.”

For those who have already been infected by Covid-19, the HAS recommends that if you are eligible for a second (or third booster) that the additional dose “is still recommended, with a minimum delay of three months after infection.”

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