How a prayer meeting in a French mega-church may have led to dozens of coronavirus deaths


On Wednesday, France reported 56,989 confirmed cases of new coronavirus, and the number of deaths in the country is the fourth in the world with 4,032, including 509 in the last day. And the actual number of deaths could be higher, as public health officials were initially not including deaths outside hospitals in the count.

As the government desperately tries to contain the spread of the virus with extensive national foreclosure and extensive testing, many wonder how France – a country with one of the most vaunted and best funded public health systems in the world – arrived at this point. .

For weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has shaken the French healthcare system, although the system so far remains largely intact. Some critically ill patients are transferred via medically equipped high-speed TGV trains from areas with overloaded intensive care units to less affected areas with greater capacity. On Wednesday, for example, the first medical transfers from the Paris region left for Brittany in western France, carrying 36 patients.

But as public health officials scramble to accommodate an increasing number of patients, details have emerged of how the Mulhouse prayer meeting had sown the country’s epidemic, triggering community transmission of the virus that has lasted weeks before being noticed. This is at least the opinion of the French Minister of Health, Olivier Véran.

“The tipping point was the evangelical gathering in Mulhouse,” Véran told the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche. “The epidemic has spread across the country since the rally.”

Since the start of the pandemic, churches and other places of worship have been linked to the spread of the coronavirus worldwide, in places like South Korea, India and the United States. France is no exception.

When the five-day prayer meeting at the Evangelical Church – known as the Christian Open Door – started on February 17, France had only 12 confirmed cases of covid-19, none in Alsace, the region where is Mulhouse.

At the time, there was little public concern about the virus, which was then still widely regarded as a Chinese problem. Even in Italy, the first signs of an outbreak that was soon to devastate a large part of the regions of Lombardy and Veneto had not yet been detected. Local Alsatian authorities therefore did not pay much attention to the fact that hundreds of people developed mild flu-like symptoms in the days following the prayer meeting.

The first confirmed case of covid-19 in Alsace was not diagnosed until February 29, according to Christophe Lannelongue, director of the Regional Health Agency of the administrative region of Grand Est. The patient was a woman whose children went to church with their grandparents, although she did not attend it herself.

Lannelongue’s office did not realize what had happened – or the scale of the potential epidemic – until two days later, he told Radio France, who traced the connections from the church. from Mulhouse across the country.

On March 2, a man tested positive for covid-19 in Nîmes, a town 388 miles south of Mulhouse, not far from the French Mediterranean coast. When asked by local authorities about his movements, he revealed that he had attended the Mulhouse prayer meeting a few days earlier.

This realization, said Lannelongue, was his “eureka” moment. “It was the gathering at the Christian Open Door in Mulhouse!” he told Radio France.

When the authorities had a clearer idea of ​​the extent of the transmission, confinement was no longer possible. The Christian open door has become a case study of how quickly the coronavirus can spread in an interconnected world.

Church officials say they do not want to be blamed for the epidemic, since the government had not yet recommended health protocols at the time of the prayer meeting. “Contrary to what some political leaders have said, we have not ignored basic security rules, because at the time there were not yet,” said Nathalie Schnoebelen, spokesman for the church , in a press release to the French press.

Cases linked to the Mulhouse church have been identified in previously untouched regions across France – in Orléans, Dijon, Besançon, Mâcon and others.

A Strasbourg-based nurse who was in the public eye has been identified as the source of an epidemic among nursing colleagues at local hospitals, infecting around 250 people, according to Lannelongue.

Three retirees from Corsica returned home after the rally and contributed to an epidemic on the island. At the last count, the authorities confirmed 263 cases in Corsica and 21 deaths.

Mamadou Karambiri, a well-known pastor from Burkina Faso, was also at the rally in Mulhouse. When he and his wife later returned home, they became the first two confirmed cases from Burkina Faso. The West African nation has reported 261 cases and 14 deaths.

France is now subject to a lockout, which prohibits any movement outside the home except the essential, a repetition of the scenario of Mulhouse is unlikely. But on Wednesday, the French government repeated its message on the need to stay put before the next religious holidays in April – Easter, Easter and Ramadan.

Sibeth Ndiaye, Government spokesperson, urged the public not to change the place of his internment during the holidays. “Obviously, when you travel across the country without knowing it, you can carry the virus and take it to places that have so far been spared,” she said.


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