France sees biggest jump in COVID-19 intensive care patients in months

PARIS (Reuters) – France reported on Friday that 5,254 people were in intensive care units with COVID-19, an increase of 145 people in one day and the highest daily increase in five months.

New confirmed cases also jumped by the highest week-on-week rate since the end of November, when France was in its second nationwide lockdown.

The ministry reported 46,677 new cases, 6.2% more than a week ago, taking the total to 4.74 million cases.

For months, the government tried to contain the epidemic with a curfew and regional confinement measures. But faced with a rapidly-growing case count and pressure on the hospital system, President Emmanuel Macron ordered a new nationwide lockdown, starting next week.

France on Friday also reported 332 new deaths from COVID-19, taking the toll to 96,280, but the new death tally included only 32 deaths in retirement care homes over three days.

Death rates in retirement homes, which were several hundreds per week at the end of 2021, have dropped off sharply as the government focused its vaccination campaign on the elderly.

The health ministry reported on Friday that 12.13 million people had received a vaccine shot so far, including just over three million second doses and more than nine million first doses.

The nine million first doses amount to 13.6% of the population and 17.3% of the adult population.

By mid-April, the government will make vaccination available to people over 60.

(Reporting by Matthieu Protard and Geert De Clercq; Editing by Edmund Blair)

G7 countries urge independent probe into alleged rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Tigray

By Foo Yun Chee

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States, Germany, France and other G7 countries called on Friday for an independent and transparent investigation into alleged human rights abuses during the conflict in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region.

Ethiopia’s federal army ousted the former regional ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), from the capital Mekelle in November.

Thousands of people died, hundreds of thousands have been forced from their homes and there are shortages of food, water and medicine in the region. The government says most fighting has ceased but there are still isolated incidents of shooting.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed said last week Eritrea has agreed to withdraw troops it had sent during the fighting into Ethiopian territory along their mutual border, amid mounting reports of human rights abuses. Eritrea has denied its forces joined the conflict.

The G7 foreign ministers of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States and EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell expressed their concerns in a joint statement.

“All parties must exercise utmost restraint, ensure the protection of civilians and respect human rights and international law,” they said.

“It is essential that there is an independent, transparent and impartial investigation into the crimes reported and that those responsible for these human rights abuses are held to account,” the ministers said.

They said the withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray must be swift, unconditional and verifiable and that a political process acceptable to all Ethiopians should be set up that leads to credible elections and a national reconciliation process.

Ethiopia’s foreign ministry said in March it was ready to work with international human rights experts to conduct investigations on allegations of abuses.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Peter Graff)

Macron orders COVID-19 lockdown across all of France, closes schools

By Sudip Kar-Gupta and Geert De Clercq

PARIS (Reuters) -President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday ordered France into its third national lockdown and said schools would close for three weeks as he sought to push back a third wave of COVID-19 infections that threatens to overwhelm hospitals.

With the death toll nearing 100,000, intensive care units in the hardest-hit regions at breaking point and a slower-than-planned vaccine rollout, Macron was forced to abandon his goal of keeping the country open to protect the economy.

“We will lose control if we do not move now,” the president said in a televised address to the nation.

His announcement means that movement restrictions already in place for more than a week in Paris, and some northern and southern regions, will now apply to the whole country for at least a month, from Saturday.

Departing from his pledge to safeguard education from the pandemic, Macron said schools will close for three weeks after this weekend.

Macron, 43, has sought to avoid a third large-scale lockdown since the start of the year, betting that if he could steer France out of the pandemic without locking the country down again he would give the economy a chance to recover from last year’s slump.

But the former investment banker’s options narrowed as more contagious strains of the coronavirus swept across France and much of Europe.

For school-children after this weekend, learning will be done remotely for a week, after which all schools go on a two-week holiday. Thereafter, nursery and primary pupils will return to school while middle and high school pupils continue distance learning for an extra week.

“It is the best solution to slow down the virus,” Macron said, adding that France had succeeded in keeping its schools open for longer during the pandemic than many neighbors.

Daily new infections in France have doubled since February to nearly 40,000. The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care has breached 5,000, exceeding the peak hit during a six-week-long lockdown late last year.

Bed capacity in critical care units will be increased to 10,000, Macron said.

The new restrictions risk slowing the pace of recovery in the euro zone’s second-largest economy from last year’s slump.

Macron said the vaccine rollout needed to be accelerated. It is only now finding its stride three months in, with just 12% of the population inoculated.

(Additional reporting by Michel Rose and Jean-Stephane Brosse; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Christian Lowe)

‘No light at the end of the tunnel’ – The COVID-19 battle in one French hospital

By Pascal ROSSIGNOL

CAMBRAI, France (Reuters) – Anesthetist Caroline Tesse cannot say whether the third wave of COVID-19 infections sweeping across France will peak in three weeks or three months. But she does know that it is too late to prevent the virus from overwhelming her intensive care unit.

All bar one of the ward’s 22 beds is occupied by a COVID-19 patient. The moment a bed is freed, another gravely ill patient is wheeled in – and as the B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in Britain, tightens its grip, they are arriving younger and sicker.

“What’s difficult is not having any light at the end of the tunnel,” said Tesse, a 35-year-old mother-of-three for whom the intensity of the latest surge in coronavirus infections is taking a toll at home and in the workplace.

Cambrai in northern France lies in one of the hardest hit areas of the country. Some 450 in every 100,000 people are testing positive and the rate is climbing.

On the ICU ward, the pace is relentless. Adryen Bisiau, a doctor on Tesse’s unit, described the latest spike as “the toughest wave we’ve endured so far”.

President Emmanuel Macron tightened COVID-19 restrictions in much of northern France and the Paris region a week ago, but he stopped short of a full lockdown that many hospitals had been calling for.

Strict confinements and school closures should be an act of last resort, Macron and his government say. But on the front line in the battle to save lives, that moment has for many passed.

“I don’t think the latest measures can stem the spread,” Tesse said after a delicate procedure to intubate yet another patient. “It’s too late.”

“We can’t even tell how long this wave will last.”

After a European Union summit at which leaders agreed to stricter export controls on vaccines, Macron on Thursday defended his decision not to impose a third lockdown as early as January.

“I have no mea culpa to make, no regrets,” the president said.

(Reporting by Pascal Rossignol; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Number of COVID patients in intensive care in France at highest level this year

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people with COVID-19 in French intensive care units rose by 84 on Tuesday to a new 2021 high of 4,634, health ministry data showed.

But the number of new infections, at 14,678, was the lowest since Jan. 3, excluding Mondays, when case numbers dip because fewer tests are done over the weekend.

A third of France’s population, including the Paris region, has since Friday been under a lockdown that is due to last four weeks. Experts generally say it takes two weeks for restrictive measures to take effect.

The total number of people in hospital for COVID-19 rose by 268 to at 26,756, the highest since Feb. 11.

The COVID-19 death toll rose by 287 to 92,908, the seventh-highest in the world.

(Reporting by Benoit Van Overstraeten; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

France reports 4,246 COVID-19 patients in intensive care, new 2021 high

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of people in intensive care units in French hospitals with COVID-19 rose by 27 to 4,246, the highest so far this year, the health ministry reported on Thursday.

The number of new positive cases also remained on a steadily increasing trend, up by 34,998 to 4.18 million in the second-biggest increase in absolute numbers this year, following an increase of 38,501 on Wednesday.

Compared with last Thursday, the case count was up by 4.8%, the 10th consecutive increase week-on-week, but remained well below week-on-week increases in the range of 20 to 30% ahead of a second lockdown in November.

The virus’s cumulative death toll rose by another 268 to 91,679, ministry data showed.

The government will detail further confinement measures at a news conference at 1800 GMT.

(Reporting by GV De Clercq; Editing by Benoit Van Overstraeten and Alex Richardson)

France to impose tougher COVID-19 curbs on Paris, other regions

PARIS (Reuters) – The French government will impose tougher restrictions for some regions including Paris from this weekend to counter the accelerating spread of COVID-19 infections, spokesman Gabriel Attal said on Wednesday after a cabinet meeting.

The announcement paves the way for new curbs in the greater Paris region, where intensive care wards are full and the hospital system is buckling with an incident rate of more than 400 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Attal said the new measures for Paris could include some form of confinement. Weekend lockdowns have already been imposed on top of a nationwide nightly curfew along parts of the Mediterranean Riviera and some areas of the north.

President Emmanuel Macron had hoped a vaccination drive could stave off a new pandemic wave triggered by more contagious variants, and prevent France from resorting to more measures that risk slowing the economy and cooping up citizens.

That approach is now being tested. The vaccine rollout has been slowed by an onerous European Union procurement process, supply difficulties, public skepticism and most recently the suspension of vaccinations using AstraZeneca shots in more than a dozen EU states including France.

Macron on Wednesday defended the EU COVID-19 vaccine strategy and said that within a few months Europe would be among the regions producing the most doses.

“We are living through the hardest weeks now. We know it,” Macron said after welcoming Poland’s prime minister at the Elysee Palace.

The new restrictions will be announced by the prime minister on Thursday. They will not include school closures, Attal said.

The head of public hospitals in Paris earlier warned that the virus was running amok in the capital and surrounding departments, an area that accounts for about a third of economic activity.

“The virus is not under control,” Martin Hirsch said.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Matthieu Protard; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Edmund Blair and Hugh Lawson)

France investigates new coronavirus variant detected in Brittany

PARIS (Reuters) – Scientists are investigating a new coronavirus variant that has been detected in Brittany in western France and may evade testing more successfully than other versions, the regional health authority said on Tuesday.

Eight cases of the new variant were identified in a cluster in a Brittany hospital. France’s health ministry said late on Monday that early analysis did not suggest the mutation was more contagious or more deadly than earlier versions of the virus.

“Investigations will take place to determine how this variant reacts to vaccination and to antibodies developed during prior COVID infections,” Brittany’s regional health authority said in a statement.

Scientists also want to understand if the variant can hide from testing after several of the patients delivered negative PCR tests and returned a positive result only from samples taken from blood or deep in the respiratory system.

Polymerase Chain Reaction tests are used to directly detect the presence of an antigen, rather than the presence of the body’s immune response, or antibodies.

International agencies have been alerted to the discovery of the new variant.

Brittany has so far avoided the brunt of the third wave of infections sweeping through France and other European countries, but the incidence rate is rising.

The seven-day moving average of infections per 100,000 inhabitants in Brittany stood at 132.9 on March 12 compared with 113 a week earlier. The incidence rate in Paris and its surrounds, where intensive care wards are near saturation, stands at 404 per 100,000.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta; Editing by Tom Hogue and Timothy Heritage)

Germany, Italy, France to halt AstraZeneca shots, further hitting EU vaccination campaign

By Thomas Escritt and Stephanie Nebehay

BERLIN/GENEVA (Reuters) – Germany, France and Italy said on Monday they would stop administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after several countries reported possible serious side-effects, throwing Europe’s already struggling vaccination campaign into disarray.

Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count. Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.

The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow rollout of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines, including AstraZeneca’s.

Germany warned last week it was facing a third wave of infections, Italy is intensifying lockdowns and hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that although the risk of blood clots was low, it could not be ruled out.

“This is a professional decision, not a political one,” Spahn said adding he was following a recommendation of the Paul Ehrlich Institute, Germany’s vaccine regulator.

France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by the EU medicine regulator due on Tuesday. Italy said its halt was a “precautionary and temporary measure” pending the regulator’s ruling.

Austria and Spain have stopped using particular batches and prosecutors in the northern Italian region of Piedmont earlier seized 393,600 doses following the death of a man hours after he was vaccinated. It was the second region to do so after Sicily, where two people had died shortly after having their shots.

The World Health Organization appealed to countries not to suspend vaccinations against a disease that has caused more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide.

“As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

The United Kingdom said it had no concerns, while Poland said it thought the benefits outweighed any risks.

“UNUSUAL” SYMPTOMS

AstraZeneca’s shot was among the first and cheapest to be developed and launched at volume since the coronavirus was first identified in central China at the end of 2019 and is set to be the mainstay of vaccination programs in much of the developing world.

Thailand announced plans on Monday to go ahead with the Anglo-Swedish firm’s shot after suspending its use on Friday but Indonesia said it would wait for the WHO to report.

The WHO said its advisory panel was reviewing reports related to the shot and would release its findings as soon as possible. But it said it was unlikely to change its recommendations, issued last month, for widespread use, including in countries where the South African variant of the virus may reduce its efficacy.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has also said there was no indication the events were caused by the vaccination and that the number of reported blood clots was no higher than seen in the general population.

The handful of reported side-effects in Europe have upset vaccination programs already under pressure over slow rollouts and vaccine skepticism in some countries.

The Netherlands said on Monday it had seen 10 cases of possible noteworthy adverse side-effects from the AstraZeneca vaccine, hours after the government put its vaccination program on hold following reports of potential side-effects in other countries.

Denmark reported “highly unusual” symptoms in a 60-year-old citizen who died from a blood clot after receiving the vaccine, the same phrase used on Saturday by Norway about three people under the age of 50 it said were being treated in hospital.

“It was an unusual course of illness around the death that made the Danish Medicines Agency react,” the agency said in a statement late on Sunday.

One of the three health workers hospitalized in Norway after receiving the AstraZeneca shot had died, health authorities said on Monday, but there was no evidence that the vaccine was the cause. They said they would continue their probe and that no more suspected cases had been reported since Saturday.

AstraZeneca said earlier it had conducted a review covering more than 17 million people vaccinated in the European Union and the UK which had shown no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots.

Investigations into potential side-effects are complicated as the history of each case and circumstances surrounding a death or illness are examined. Austrian authorities have said their review of the AstraZeneca batch will take about two weeks.

The EMA has said that as of March 10, a total of 30 cases of blood clotting had been reported among close to 5 million people vaccinated with the AstraZeneca shot in the European Economic Area, which links 30 European countries.

The WHO said that as of March 12, more than 300 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered around the world with no deaths found to have been caused by any of them.

(Reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANKOK and Andreas Rinke and Paul Carrel in BERLIN, Angelo Amante in ROME, Christian Lowe in PARIS, Toby Sterling in AMSTERDAM, Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen in COPENHAGEN and Stanley Widianto in JAKARTA; writing by Philippa Fletcher; editing by Nick Macfie)

COVID-19 situation in Paris area extremely tense: French PM

PARIS (Reuters) – The COVID-19 situation in the Paris region is extremely tense and authorities are ready to take new measures, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Friday, but he did not announce a tightening of curfew or new regional lockdowns.

Despite rising COVID-19 cases, the administration of President Emmanuel Macron has not to date declared a new national lockdown, opting instead to tighten measures locally in hard-hit towns like Nice and Dunkirk, but Paris has been spared so far.

“I call on everyone, and especially those who live in the capital, to be extremely careful, wear the mask and respect social distancing. The aim is to reduce the pressure on the hospital system,” Castex said during a visit to a hospital.

The number of people with COVID-19 in intensive care units on Friday exceeded 4,000 for the first time since Nov. 26, with nearly 1,100 COVID-19 patients in ICUs in the Paris region alone.

In Paris and the surrounding region, healthcare managers say the intensive care units are close to being overloaded.

Castex said that in the Ile-de-France region around Paris the vaccination campaign would be sped up this weekend, with the delivery of 25,000 extra doses.

France’s vaccination program has been hampered by logistical bottlenecks and problems with deliveries from vaccine manufacturers but Castex said the campaign was speeding up, with 320,326 shots administered on Friday, a new record.

As of Friday, 7.04 million people – more than one tenth of the French population — had been vaccinated, official figures showed, including 2.22 million second injections.

(Reporting by GV De Clercq; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Kirsten Donovan)