(28 Oct 2020) Over the course of a single overnight shift this week, three new COVID-19 patients in respiratory distress were rushed into Dr. Karim Debbat’s small intensive care ward in the southern French city of Arles.
His service now has more virus patients than during the pandemic’s first wave, and is scrambling to create new ICU beds elsewhere in the hospital to accommodate the sick.
Similar scenes are playing out across France.
COVID-19 patients now occupy 58% of ICU beds in the Paris region, as several weeks of growing infections among young people spread to vulnerable populations.
Despite being one of the world’s richest nations — and one of those hardest hit when the pandemic first washed over the world — France hasn’t added significant ICU capacity or the staff needed to manage extra beds, according to national health agency figures and doctors at multiple hospitals.
Like in many countries facing resurgent infections, critics say France’s leaders haven’t learned their lessons from the first wave.
“The ICU itself is at full capacity,” Dr. Debbat told The AP. His hospital is converting recovery rooms into ICUs, delaying non-urgent surgery and directing more and more of his staff to high-maintenance COVID patients.
ICU occupancy rates are considered an important indicator of how saturated the hospital system is and how effective health authorities have been at protecting at-risk populations. And France’s numbers aren’t looking good.
Compared to March and April, doctors say French intensive care wards are better armed this time around, both with protective equipment and more knowledge about how this coronavirus works. Medics put fewer patients on breathing machines now, and hospitals are practiced in how to rearrange their operations to focus on COVID-19.
Dr. Debbat in Arles said that training ICU staff takes several months, so he’s relying on the same personnel levels as in the spring, and he worries they could burn out.
“I’m like a coach with no substitutes,” he said.
He also worries about non-virus patients, who were already put on the back burner earlier this year. And he worries about the upcoming flu season, which sends about 2,000 patients to ICUs in France every year.
France reported more than 32,000 new daily cases Tuesday, and virus patients now occupy 2,918 ICU beds nationwide. France’s overall ICU capacity is 6,000, roughly the same as in March, according to national health agency figures provided to The AP.
France added extra makeshift beds in the spring — including some built by the military in the country’s first-ever peacetime field hospital — and the health agency said French hospitals could eventually double ICU capacity if needed this fall.
To date, France’s confirmed virus-related death toll is 35,541.
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