PARIS – When nurse Anaelle Aeschliman started her 12-hour night shift caring for unconscious patients with COVID-19, the French prime minister was announcing new restrictions to combat the resurgent coronavirus epidemic in Paris.
She was not impressed. The 26-year-old had been hoping for a full nationwide lockdown to slow the streams of severely ill patients filling ICUs like hers, in the west of Paris.
Instead, Prime Minister Jean Castex unveiled a mishmash of measures — including closures of nonessential shops — that are mostly limited to Paris and northern France and don't oblige people to spend most of the day indoors. Announced Thursday night, they were taking effect on Friday night, when Aeschliman was due to be back in the ICU, for another 12-hour shift.
"Locking down region by region isn’t enough. I think it’s a sanitary suicide,” she said Friday morning, as she went home for a shower and some sleep after working through the night.
“I admit I was a bit disappointed that we aren’t being locked down nationwide," she said. "When you look at the numbers, they’re unsustainable, and it is going to become ever-harder as the virus continues to circulate.”
In March 2020, when France first locked down with some of the toughest restrictions in Europe, the government exhorted people to stay home. This time, it is, in effect, urging them to go out and get some fresh air.
People in the Paris region and in the north of the country covered by the new rules can walk as long as they like in the day, within a 10-kilometer (six-mile) radius of their homes and carrying a paper authorizing the stroll. The new measures affect about 21 million people in the country of 67 million.
Schools will remain open. That was a big relief for Anissa Amira, a director of ICU care at the Ambroise Paré private hospital where Aeschliman also works. Amira said her 7-year-old daughter suffered from the school closures that made France's first lockdown particularly grueling for many children and families, and that “being able to go to school gives her a semblance of normality.”
But in the hospital, staff are exhausted, she said.
“Despite all of our efforts, we can’t see the end of the tunnel,” Amira said.
Restaurants, bars, cinemas, gyms, museums, theaters and concert halls, already shut for almost five months, will remain closed. A nationwide overnight curfew also remains in place, although it is being shortened by an hour, to start from 7 p.m. instead of 6 p.m. and still running through to 6 a.m.
For Pierre Squara, the doctor in charge Friday at the ICU unit, encouraging people to leave their Paris apartments for outdoor physical activities makes sense, especially with spring around the corner.
“Now that good weather is coming and people will be able to go outside, it will disperse the virus a bit more,” he said. "It is better to be outside than to be four people in an apartment of 25 square meters. Because Paris apartments are small.”
Dr. Anousone Daulasim, coming off a night shift in the ICU unit, said the new measures were “absolutely necessary” to take pressure off medical teams. He was reserving judgment on how effective they might be against surging infections.
Doctors are hoping the new restrictions will buy more time for France’s vaccination campaign to make additional headway against the virus.
The campaign was slow to get off the ground, targeting most first jabs at the elderly, especially the 700,000 residents of medicalized care homes that were hardest-hit by previous surges of the pandemic. They have accounted for more than a third of France’s 91,706 deaths.
But ICU doctors believe they are now seeing the beginnings of the benefits of the vaccination campaign, taking in fewer elderly patients who are gravely sick.
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal said the government had sought to draw conclusions from better scientific knowledge of the virus and from France’s two previous lockdowns in spring and autumn.
“Everything we can do outside, we need to do it outside,” he told RTL radio.
As the measures apply for at least four weeks and travel between regions will be forbidden without a compelling reason, many people were rushing on Friday to Paris train stations to leave for other less-affected regions.
French authorities also resumed shots with the vaccine made by AstraZeneca on Friday. Castex got vaccinated to show confidence in the product, and gave a thumbs up after getting his jab.
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