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French care homes hit hard as COVID-19 deaths mount

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By Guillaume Petit
A care worker looks after residents of the Maharin nursing home of Anglet, southwestern France, Tuesday, Jan.30, 2018.
A care worker looks after residents of the Maharin nursing home of Anglet, southwestern France, Tuesday, Jan.30, 2018.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Bob Edme

It’s becoming painfully clear in France that nursing homes are among the worst hotspots of the COVID-19 crisis.

Around a third of all deaths from the disease in the country have come from within retirement communities.

Figures released this week showed that at least 3,237 people have so far died of COVID-19 in French nursing homes, compared to 7,000 in the nation’s hospitals.

In one nursing home in the southern town of Mougins, 30 people died since the start of the pandemic, and the family of one resident filed a complaint against persons unknown for "endangering the life of others".

Contacted by Euronews, the regional director of Korian, the company running the home could not explain how the situation had gotten so bad, but suggested the virus had spread perniciously.

"What’s certain is that the virus was present for some days or even weeks within the facility – concealed, if I may, given the jump in new cases," said Antoine Ruplinger, PACA region director at Korian.

In order to rapidly detect cases of COVID-19 among residents and staff, French Health Minister Olivier Véran announced on Tuesday the launch of screening campaigns across the country’s nursing houses.

"The aim is to test all the residents and all the staff from the moment there is a single confirmed case in a nursing home," Véran said.

In one retirement home in Haute-Savoie, management has been waiting for such a testing campaign for weeks. Strict social distancing measures were implemented very early on in the epidemic, but the virus still spread.

"From March 2nd we closed the place to residents' families, way before the government announced the lockdown (on March 16). On March 10 we put the whole place under lockdown and we had masks – at least at the beginning, all the healthcare professionals had some," said Eric Lacoudre, regional director for Odelia.

But Lacoudre faces another problem: many healthcare professionnals are tempted to work in neighbouring Switzerland, where wages are higher. This results in staff shortages that become even more glaring in the midst of a health crisis.

"When the virus spread and contaminated some health caregivers, we started facing big difficulties. Last week, we had to call for help and solidarity on social media, and thankfully healthcare givers came forward," he said.

French authorities have made a nationwide call for volunteers such as retired doctors and medical students. So far, 720 reservists have been mobilised in the country’s fight against the epidemic.