France hit by the fifth wave of COVID-19

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The seven-day average of new cases reached 17,153 on Saturday, which is an increase of 81%.

The fifth-wave coronavirus infections in France are rising at an alarming rate, the government reported on Sunday, with new daily COVID-19 cases close to doubling over the past week.

The actual figures were slightly worse; on November 21, there were 19,749 confirmed cases compared to 10,023 the Sunday before – a rise of 81.4%. The incidence rate was 171 on Sunday.

Water analysis levels – sometimes used as a key marker of Covid spread – have also shown evidence of this rise, with samples from around Marseille (for example) showing a high presence of Covid, especially in the north of the city.

“The fifth wave is starting at lightning speed,” government spokesman Gabrial Attal told the media.

The latest seven-day increase is three times the average rise of cases recorded over the previous three weeks, indicating an exponential acceleration of infections.

Yet, Mr Attal said that while there were some elements that could “worry us”, there were also aspects of the situation that could “give us confidence”.

These include a very “high vaccine coverage”, and the fact that France is “rather ahead compared to its neighbours on the vaccination booster”. 

Just over 77% of the eligible population in France has received at least one dose of vaccine, with 75% having received the two doses required for coverage.

High alert

The health agency, Santé publique France, reported on1 the 10th of November, that the national infection rate for Covid-19 was close to 100 per 100,000 people, twice as high as the government’s “warning” rate. The number of patients admitted to hospital has also jumped.

The areas which saw the highest rate of infections per 100,000 people across the past week included the island of Corsica with 131 cases per 100,000 (+46%), 108 in the central Pays de la Loire (+29%) and 106 en Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur (+36%).

When asked about the possibility of a lockdown in France, like the new one in Austria, government spokesman Gabriel Attal told France 2 television on Saturday that nothing would be ruled out.

Health pass helped

Mr Attal also said that the use of the health pass in France “from the summer” had improved the national situation, and would continue to do so as the fifth wave intensifies.

He also hailed the government’s “choice to make the constraints weigh on the non-vaccinated, rather than the vaccinated”.

The spokesperson said that checks of the health pass had risen by 102% in the past week, meaning that “in the first four days of this week”, 70,000 people were checked, and there were more than 4,300 checks at establishments that are open to the public.

Will France roll out booster jabs for more people? 

It is looking increasingly more likely, although the government has not confirmed anything yet. Mr Attal simply called on eligible people to have their booster jab as soon as possible. 

Currently, boosters are available in France for people who are 65 and over, care home residents, at high risk of a severe infection, healthcare professionals and/or those close to immunosuppressed people.

From December this will also be opened up to people aged over 50.

President Emmanuel Macron announced on November 9 that the booster dose campaign would be expanded to include everyone aged 50 and over from the beginning of December.

But on Friday, November 19, health authority La Haute Autorité de Santé recommended that people aged 40 and over be offered a booster jab. And it comes as health experts suggest that France may (or should) soon roll out booster jabs to the entire population. 

Countries such as the US have already done this.

Experts such as Professor Jean-François Delfraissy, president of government advisory body le Conseil scientifique on Covid-19, last week said: “[Vaccines] lose part of their effectiveness after five to six months, hence the need for a booster dose.”

And in a statement on October 6, the HAS said: “The most recent studies confirm a drop in vaccine effectiveness over time, against Delta infections.”

The HAS referenced a study published early November in The New England Journal of Medicine, which stated that the effectiveness of the Pfizer jab drops by 6% on average every two months.

The authority is now considering whether to advise rolling out booster jabs to more people. It said: “While this gradual drop in protection following the first vaccination is generally seen in older people, certain studies are showing that it affects groups of all ages (over 18).”

Booster jabs can be given from six months after the first round of vaccinations.

First vaccinations for the over-50s opened in France in late February this year, and for everyone over 18 from mid-May, meaning that these groups technically became eligible for a booster jab at the six-month mark from mid-August, and everyone else from mid-November (now).

One study in medical journal The Lancet showed that one week after receiving the Pfizer booster jab, it prevented the risk of hospitalisation from Covid by 93%, and the risk of death by 81%.

A British study confirmed this; it showed that after receiving a booster dose of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer jab, protection against symptoms among adults aged 50 and over rose to 93% and 94% respectively.

For now, the spike in infections has not led to a massive influx of COVID-19 patients into hospitals, with the authorities attributing the limited number of intensive care patients to France’s high rate of vaccinations which appear highly effective against the most dangerous forms of COVID-19.

On Saturday, hospitals reported a total of 7,974 COVID-19 patients in their care, with 1,333 of them in intensive treatment. This compares to 6,500 and 1,000, respectively, a month earlier.

“There is a very strong increase in infections, but we also know that in France we have a very large vaccination cover,” he said. “We seem to be ahead of our neighbours concerning booster shots.”

France’s introduction of a health pass ahead of other countries in the summer was also helping to keep coronavirus infections in check, he said.

The health pass, required in French restaurants, cafes and many cultural venues, certifies that a person is fully vaccinated, has recently recovered from COVID-19, or has tested negative for the virus.

Are there enough doses to vaccinate everyone again? 

Yes. If the country does decide to offer booster jabs to more people, it will likely have enough doses to do so by summer next year. 

If the entire population is offered a booster, this will require the vaccination of 50.5 million people, data from the ministry of health suggests.

As of November 18, France had almost 38.6 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna already in place, with 65 million doses on order set to be delivered by July 2022.

Austria’s response

Austria’s parliament approved a lockdown as of Monday for people not vaccinated against Covid-19, a first in the EU.

About 65 percent of Austria’s almost nine million people are vaccinated, below the EU average of 67 percent, while daily increases in infections have hit records this week.

Austria’s lockdown means people over 12 who are not vaccinated or cannot show that they have recently recovered from Covid will not be allowed to leave the house except for reasons such as buying essential supplies, exercise or seeking medical care.

The government also announced that vaccinations will become mandatory for health workers.

“The situation is serious… We don’t take this step with a light heart but unfortunately it is necessary,” Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg told reporters in a televised press conference.

Children get jabs

Hundreds gathered outside the chancellory for his announcement in a noisy protest, waving banners that read “No to mandatory vaccination” and “Our body, our freedom to decide”.

The lockdowns are to be enforced with random spot checks for the next 10 days with police patrols being stepped up. It will then be reviewed, according to the government.

Those who break the rules risk a 500-euro fine; those who refuse to show proof that they are vaccinated or have recently recovered can be fined three times as much.

The capital Vienna is further toughening rules, requiring PCR tests on top of being vaccinated or recovered to attend events of more than 25 people or go to bars and restaurants in the evening.

Also from Monday, Vienna will be the first region in the EU to offer jabs to children from the age of five to 11 at a vaccination centre.

Germany

Germany is preparing a return to working from home under draft legislation seen by AFP on Sunday, as the country tries to tackle an unprecedented wave of coronavirus cases.

Infections and deaths have been climbing steeply since mid-October, in an outbreak blamed on Germany’s vaccination rate of just over 67 percent — still leaving a large share of people more vulnerable to infection and severe disease.

At 289 cases per 100,000 people, the recorded incidence of the coronavirus reached a new high in Europe’s most populous country on Sunday, according to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) health agency.

“The coming wave will overshadow all the previous waves,” Saxony state premier Michael Kretschmer, whose region is currently amongst the worst hit, told German weekly Bild am Sonntag.

Under the draft plan, employers in Germany would be forced to offer the option to work from home in the absence of a “compelling business reason” to come to the office.

Anyone going into work would also be asked to show they were protected against the virus or had tested negative.

Netherlands

In the Netherlands, Dutch premier Mark Rutte announced on Friday at least three weeks of lockdown measures targeting restaurants, shops and sporting events to curb a record spike in coronavirus infections.

Under Europe’s first partial lockdown of the winter, bars, restaurants, cafes and supermarkets must shut at 8:00 pm and non-essential shops must shut at 6:00 pm, until 4 December.

Dutch police arrested 15 people in a town in the north of the Netherlands late Saturday during clashes with demonstrators who were protesting against the new measures.

Violent protests occurred in January when similar measures to curb the virus were announced.

Covid has killed at least 5,094,101 people since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP.

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