Too early? Covid cases on the rise as France prepares to lift restrictions

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The latest upswing in infections is worrying as France prepares to lift most Covid-19 restrictions on Monday, with some health workers lamenting a premature decision dictated by political imperatives ahead of the country’s presidential election.

Ousted by the war in Ukraine and the impending presidential race in France, Covid-19 has all but disappeared from French news in recent weeks. And yet, the pandemic that paralyzed the world in 2020 is far from over.

In fact, after weeks of steady decline, Covid infections are rising again, according to the public health body, Santé Publique France. The number of new infections topped 73,000 on Friday, up from 60,000 the previous week. The more accurate 7-day average showed almost 70,000 new cases per day, a 20% increase week-on-week.

The national average hides significant regional disparities, says Guillaume Rozier, founder of the government-sponsored website CovidTracker, linking rising cases to French regions’ staggered return to school after the winter holidays.

“The increase in cases is most apparent in northern France and along the Mediterranean coast, roughly corresponding to areas where children returned to school earliest (February 21),” said he explained.

The schools’ back to school is known to cause infections when students, teachers and parents mingle after winter break. Health experts have also reported a loosening of social distancing measures as people let their guard down.

Another potential factor for infection is the spread of Omicron’s BA.2 subvariant, which early studies suggest could be up to 30% more infectious than the strain that has been prevalent so far.

Far from their masks

France is not alone in recording an increase in cases, with Germany, Britain and the Netherlands reporting similar trends. However, like its European peers, the French government is determined to stick to its timetable for lifting restrictions.

‘Now is not the time to do it,’ says UK expert on decision to ease Covid restrictions

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Rules requiring people to present a Covid-19 vaccine passport to access venues will be lifted on Monday March 14, just under a month before the country’s presidential election. So will the requirement to wear face masks indoors.

From now on, face coverings that have become a symbol of the pandemic will only be required on public transport, in hospitals and in nursing homes for the elderly – marking a major policy change that some experts and health workers have called a premature.

“The French Minister of Health had declared that this decision would be conditional on a certain number of health indicators. But it seems that sticking to the schedule is now the priority, ”said Swiss-based epidemiologist Antoine Flahaut, referring to Health Minister Olivier Véran’s assertion that the restrictions would only be lifted if the rate of he incidence – the number of new cases per 100,000 people – has remained below 500 (it is now at 546).

The government has also fallen short of its target of bringing the number of intensive care patients below 1,500. The number only recently fell below 2,000, its lowest level since early December.

Politics takes precedence over health issues

According to Jérôme Marty, who heads the doctors’ union UFML, the decision to lift the restrictions is both untimely and misguided, driven by political imperatives.

“I wouldn’t have bothered if the infections went down, but that’s clearly not the case. Moreover, we are abandoning face masks without implementing parallel measures to ventilate enclosed spaces and prevent viral concentrations,” he told FRANCE 24. “With the presidential campaign in full swing, the motive is clearly political, not sanitary.

>> To read: In a vaccine-skeptical France, candidates walk the tightrope of Covid measures

The fear is that hospitalizations could also start to rise again, as is already the case in the UK, although the high vaccination rate in France and the arrival of spring should help ease the pressure on hospitals.

“The public can count on better vaccine protection and better knowledge of the virus than in the past,” Marty said. “The problem is that we still have five million people who are unvaccinated and some 300,000 who are immunocompromised.”

Overcoming vaccine skepticism in the Caribbean

Health workers are particularly concerned about the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where the number of new cases has again crossed the alert threshold.

So far, only 45% of Guadeloupeans have received a first vaccine. Less than a quarter of the population completed their vaccination with three doses. Local officials hope to overcome widespread vaccine skepticism with the introduction of the Novavax jab, a more traditional vaccine compared to the types of messenger RNA used so far.

Anti-vaccination protesters attack hospital staff in Guadeloupe

Announcing the 1,000th hospital death in the territory due to Covid-19 at the end of February, local health workers deplored “carnage unprecedented since the cholera epidemic in Guadeloupe of 1865-66”.

As the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, warned on Wednesday, “this pandemic is far from over.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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