“Infections will rise again for 10 to 15 days,” Health Minister Olivier Véran told Franceinfo on Wednesday, two days after the country had done away with the vaccine pass and lifted mask rules in most areas.
“What the modelling of the Institut Pasteur tells us is that it will indeed go up until the end of March, we risk reaching 120,000 to 150,000 infections per day, and then we can expect a decrease,” he went on.
But he insisted the government had made the “right decision” in choosing to end most restrictions earlier than anticipated and in spite of an apparent epidemic rebound, saying “there is no risk of saturation of hospitals“.
So what’s happening?
Daily Covid numbers in France reached record highs in January, when an average of more than 366,000 new cases a day were recorded.
Current figures are well below that, but still high. On Tuesday, France reported more than 116,000 new cases in the previous 24 hours – a marked rise on the figure of 93,050 recorded the same day a week previously, and breaking the 100,000 barrier for the first time since mid-February.
• 116 618 cas positifs ont été recensés en 24 heures, contre 93 050 mardi dernier (+25%).
• La moyenne sur la semaine écoulée est proche de 70 000 cas par jour (+27% en semaine). #Covid
— Nicolas Berrod (@nicolasberrod) March 15, 2022
The daily average figure – which irons out statistical quirks such as delayed reporting at weekends – is 65,143, a 25 percent increase on the previous week.
“More than 50 percent” of new cases are due to the sub-variant of Omicron, BA.2, which is “more transmissible” but less severe, the Conseil scientifique said.
The number of people being hospitalised with the virus has started ticking up again, after falling from a peak of 2,900 per day in early February. On March 13th, there were 973 new patients in hospital.
“High vaccination rates have made it possible to limit the hospital impact of these infections,” the Conseil said.
But about 4 million adult people remain unvaccinated and almost 5 million have not had a booster dose.
“The number of hospitalisations will increase temporarily in the coming weeks,” it added.
Admissions to intensive care and death rates both continue to decline, but usually any effect on these figures is not felt until at least two weeks after case numbers begin to rise.
France is not the only country that is seeing an uptick in cases, Germany, Austria, the UK, Belgium and Italy have all reported rises in recent days.
Since the relaxation of the French rules only happened on Monday, it is clearly not the source of the increase.
Rather, regional variations in the spread of the virus indicates that schools reopening after the winter holidays has been a key driver of the latest rise in infections.
Schools in France are divided into three zones and take their February holiday at different times.
Guillaume Rozier, founder of the CovidTracker website, told AFP at the weekend. “The rise in cases is most apparent in northern France and along the Mediterranean coast, roughly corresponding to the areas where children returned to school earliest (on February 21st).”
Upticks in Covid figures have been spotted, too, in zones A and C, which returned to class later.
“The current cold climate remains an element that favours viral transmission. This should improve in the coming weeks with the arrival of the good weather,” says the Conseil scientifique.
As the weather improves and temperatures rise, socialising and activities tend to move outdoors, where the transmission risk is lower. This follows the pattern also seen in 2020 and 2021 when the virus receded in the summer, before returning in autumn.
Not a wave
“This rebound is not a wave,” says Véran. However he added: “The end of the obligation does not mean the end of vigilance. I invite French women and men to wear the mask in all circumstances which may expose them or those around them to the risk of infection.”
Institut Pasteur forecasts published on March 10th suggest that “in all the scenarios explored, the peak of cases [in March] remains much lower than the peak in January”.
Experts are also confident that the combination of vaccinations and immunity because of previous infection will keep serious cases to a minimum.