France Uses Army Helicopters to Ferry Critical Virus Patients Abroad

By Christian Hartmann and John Irish

March 31, 2020

STRASBOURG/PARIS (Reuters) - Army helicopters on Monday transported coronavirus patients fighting for their lives from eastern France to hospitals in Germany and Switzerland as the country battled to free up space in life-support units.

The Grand Est region was the first in France to be overwhelmed by a wave of infections that has rapidly moved west to engulf the greater Paris region, where hospitals are desperately adding intensive care beds to cope with the influx.

The number of coronavirus deaths since March 1 climbed 13% to 2,606 on Sunday, while the number of intensive care cases rose 8.4 percent to 4,632, its lowest daily rise in that period - a rare positive in recent days.

However, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe has warned the country's 67 million people that the toughest weeks in the fight against epidemic were still to come and doctors in the capital said on Monday they were close to saturation point.

"Today in the pulmonology unit we are as full as full can be," Jerome Pinot, a doctor at the Georges Pompidou hospital in Paris told Reuters.

"To find a place in intensive care is a never-ending headache. We ask ourselves whether we can move this patient to this unit to take another patient. It's an incessant game."

France has already doubled the number of beds in intensive care units from 5,000 to about 10,000 since the start of the crisis and the government at the weekend pledged to quickly increase that number to 14,500.

In the eastern city of Strasbourg, paramedics in hazmat suits transferred six patients onto three Caiman NH90 medicalised helicopters before they were moved to hospitals in Bern and Frankfurt.

Eighty have so far been moved from the region to Switzerland, Germany and Luxembourg, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Twitter, adding that the aim was to transfer more than 100 in the coming hours.

Transfers from Paris hospitals are expected in the coming days.

Health officials want to send some patients to other countries and to less stricken regions to make space in the worst hit areas so that if the peak shifts, then the capital in particular could again take patients in two weeks' time.

"The growth phase of the epidemic in the region will probably last two weeks," said Pierre Delobel, head of the infectious and tropical diseases unit at the University Hospital in Toulouse, where the number of cases have jumped from eight to 40 in a week.

"Then there will be a slowdown but that does not mean a decrease, it will go up less quickly."

Highlighting the cost to frontline medical personnel, a doctor, who had been close to retirement, died in the Paris area at the weekend from the virus.

"We will use this rage from his death to fight more and more and be tougher than this virus," Aurelien Rousseau, director general of the Paris region health authority, said in a letter made public.

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