France staged yesterday its largest evacuation of coronavirus patients to date from hospitals in the hard-hit east, increasing efforts to free up intensive care units as officials warn of an influx of serious cases in the coming days.
Two specially-equipped high-speed trains carried 36 patients from Mulhouse and Nancy toward hospitals along France’s western coast, where the outbreak has been limited so far.
Dozens of hospital workers, flanked by police and soldiers standing guard, spent hours installing four patients in each wagon in an operation that began before dawn.
“We have to free up beds, it’s absolutely crucial that we air out these intensive care units. We’re still seeing an increase in patient numbers,” said Francois Brun, head of emergency services at the regional hospital in nearby Metz.
The evacuations came as Germany sent a military plane for the first time to Strasbourg to bring two patients to a hospital in Ulm.
In total around 80 French patients have been hospitalised in Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg, European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin told France Inter radio.
France has been evacuating dozens over the past week from the east, hoping to stay ahead of a crisis that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has warned will only worsen over the next two weeks.
Overall more than 4,600 coronavirus patients are in intensive care in France, many with severe respiratory problems requiring ventilators that officials worry could soon be in short supply.
Philippe said on Saturday that the government was racing to have 14,000 intensive care beds available soon, compared with just 5,000 before the outbreak began in January.
Yesterday the national health service reported 292 new coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing the total to 2,606.
The coronavirus causes the Covid-19 disease.
The daily toll was below the 319 deaths reported on Saturday, but the figures include only deaths reported in hospitals, and not at retirement homes or assisted-living facilities.
Officials fear the virus risks spreading quickly at the country’s roughly 7,000 retirement homes, and several have already announced dozens of deaths.
Those figures will start to be reported this week, the prime minister said yesterday, warning that “the battle is only starting”.
“This war will probably be won on the basis of intensive care beds, and our ability to strategically use all our intensive care resources on the national level,” said Marie-Odile Saillard, director of the Metz regional hospital.
National health service chief Jerome Salomon said 359 more people were placed in intensive care yesterday.
“This is the most important number to keep track of, because it reflects the strength of the epidemic,” he said at his daily briefing.
The government has ordered 1bn face masks, mainly from China, but warned that surging worldwide demand for protective equipment means they might not arrive soon enough for workers currently facing shortages.
A plane from China carrying some 5mn masks and other equipment was scheduled to arrive in Paris, though the government has admitted it needs 40mn masks each week for health workers alone as the outbreak rages.
France has been on lockdown since March 17 in a bid to limit contagion, a situation it has extended until at least April 15.
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