France faces new virus testing problems

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PARIS (AP) – With a further rise in virus cases, France is struggling to administer enough tests to meet demand. One reason: Many testing labs are closed so their staff can take summer vacation, just as signs of a second wave are forming.

Doctors and experts say holiday squeeze is only part of a wider web of failures in France’s testing strategy – a strategy even the government’s virus advisory committee has called this week of disorganized and “insufficient”.

“First, there is a lack of workers to do the tests. If we do not ask all health workers to be available by mobilizing them all, there are simply not enough people, ”emergency doctor Christophe Prudhomme told The Associated Press in his hospital in Paris. the Parisian suburb of Bobigny.

“And then it’s a question of organization,” he said, urging regional health agencies “to organize tests so that it is not the citizen who has to pick up his phone and try to call seven. or eight laboratories to obtain an appointment that will take place only next week.

Testing issues plagued the United States and other countries as well. But France’s August ritual of fleeing the cities for weeks of vacation rest on the seaside, on the mountainside or in grandmother’s country house is an added entanglement. “Closed for Vacation” signs hang door after door across Paris this month, from bakeries to iconic shoe stores and cafes.

Doctors’ offices and laboratories are no exception. Their staff need a break more than ever this difficult year. And with Parisians on vacation in the provinces, the demand for medical services generally plunges in summer.

But in August, socially distanced lines meander past the scattered Parisian laboratories that remain open, from the left bank to the city’s northern canals. Trying to get an exam appointment can take a week or more. So can get results.

This is worrying news in a country which has seen renowned hospitals nearly drown with patients infected with the virus in the first wave – in part due to inadequate testing – and which has already lost more than 30,000 lives in cause of the pandemic.

Two months of strict lockdown and soul-searching into France’s early mistakes seemed to put the country on the right track to defeat COVID-19. But now it is again registering more than 1,000 new cases a day, and the number of patients in intensive care units is increasing slightly, for the first time in months.

France is in better shape than last time to stay ahead of new infections – but testing is essential.

“The virus has not gone away at all. … Contamination continues and is growing in some regions, ”said François Blanchecotte, president of the Union of Medical Biologists, which has been at the forefront of French screening efforts. “We need to adapt the testing strategy to this development.”

He pleads for a more targeted policy taking into account the capacities of laboratories, such as the organization of tests in seaside resorts or tourist sites where young people gather.

He is particularly annoyed by a general government campaign to test 1.5 million Parisians to better understand how the virus is spread. The free test vouchers were handed out just as dozens of labs were shutting down for vacations, compounding the bottlenecks.

“We are at the crossroads. We saw a situation of disorder in Paris, in which the laboratories were not ready to face thousands of people at the same time. It’s a nightmare to get a date, ”said Blanchecotte.

The government has not ordered anyone to skip the holidays, which French workers see as a hard-won fundamental right. But he issued a special decree late last month allowing certain medical students, firefighters and rescue workers to administer nasal swabs against the coronavirus.

It was too late to stop an outbreak in the town of Quiberon, in western Brittany, triggered by a nightclub party last month. Authorities have urged everyone in the region to get tested – a mammoth task in a peninsula where the population drops from 5,000 to 60,000 in summer. Some revelers were thwarted by long lines at a makeshift testing station and gave up. And the virus has spread.

In Paris, the town hall is trying to relieve the summer tension of laboratories with a mobile test site on a beach in the La Villette canal, where crowds lined up on Wednesday even before it opened.

Noemie Maoso wants to make sure she is virus free before she leaves on a trip to Ireland with her daughter. “I will do this to be calm during my trip,” she said. Another woman who needs an exam to travel to Greece to work on a farm couldn’t get a date last month, so she tried her luck again on Wednesday.

Some labs have adjusted their hours to stay open late at night, or open on Sundays – both unusual in France.

After being criticized for its limited testing capacity in the first wave, the government now claims it can test up to 700,000 people per week, and last week hit a record 457,000 tests.

But the number of new positive cases is increasing twice as fast as the growth in testing rates, according to data from the national health agency.

Blanchecotte is worried, but defended the decision to let lab staff take their vacation. For months, they worked overtime to meet virus testing needs, he said. Some staggered vacation departures or reduced vacation plans.

And fall can be even worse.

“We know that September, October, November are difficult months,” he warned. “We must be prepared.”

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Nicolas Garriga and Arno Pedram in Paris contributed.

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