French health workers ‘traumatised’ as Covid-19 resurges

A medical worker prepares to enter the room of a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease in the Intensive Care Unit at the Clinique Bouchard-ELSAN private hospital in Marseille, France, September 21, 2020.
A medical worker prepares to enter the room of a patient suffering from the coronavirus disease in the Intensive Care Unit at the Clinique Bouchard-ELSAN private hospital in Marseille, France, September 21, 2020. © Eric Gaillard, REUTERS

After having battled the first spike of Covid-19 infections last spring, nurses in intensive care wards in and near Paris tell FRANCE 24 that exhausted health workers are frightened by the virus’s resurgence.


Five months since the lifting of the almost two-month-long lockdown that helped suppress France’s Covid-19 caseload, the coronavirus has resurged as more people return to circulation. The country recorded more than 20,000 new cases on Friday, a record daily tally.

This comes after Paris and three neighbouring regions were put on the top coronavirus alert level on Tuesday, shutting the City of Lights’ iconic cafés and bars for at least 15 days. That same day, 40 percent of beds in the intensive care units of the Paris region were occupied by Covid-19 patients.

Nurses in the region’s hospitals are anxious once more; they remember all too well the panic in March, at the peak of the Covid-19 crisis. “We’re going to be there for whoever needs us. We don’t ask ourselves any questions, we just do what we’ve got to do and get on it with it,” said Isabelle*, a night nurse at Melun Hospital southeast of Paris.

“How could a country like ours have faced a shortage of equipment?” she asked. “I’ll never forget having to wear the same surgical mask for 12 hours straight, having to wear a bin bag as a gown, the risks for my family. I had Covid-19 symptoms, but I had to go to work anyway.”

‘A lot of them will never get over it’

Isabelle was one of the first nurses at her hospital to deal with serious coronavirus cases. She worked six days a week, more than 50 hours in total. She said she herself is all right, but expressed concern about her “traumatised” colleagues. “On more than one occasion we had pits in our stomachs because there was no more room in intensive care. We had to make choices as soon as space opened up. Many patients died on the floor [outside the intensive care ward]. Placing the deceased in bags and seeing them leave for the mortuary without even being washed – that was hard.”

Student nurses were called in as reinforcements. One of the students Isabelle worked with has since dropped out, too upset by the experience to continue. “We didn’t even have time to train them,” she said. “They really went through the wringer. You shouldn’t have to go through something like that when you’re 20. A lot of them will never get over it. How could the government let something like that happen?”

Several health workers’ unions criticised the decision to bring in student nurses in the early days of the pandemic. It was the use of “cheap labour who were asked to put aside their studies”, said Christophe Prudhomme, the left-wing CGT union’s spokesman for emergency medical workers.

“It’s like the hospital system itself is on a ventilator machine,” he told FRANCE 24. “Following budget cuts after budget cuts, things have to be done at the last minute – and it’s exhausting.”

The desire to volunteer is flagging amid the exhaustion – in contrast to the situation in March, when volunteers swelled the ranks of staff combatting Covid-19 in intensive care wards.

‘We’re not superheroes’

Another nurse, Audrey, volunteered at Kremlin-Bicêtre Hospital in Paris’s southern suburbs because she had worked in intensive care there a few years previously. “To start with, I didn’t really think about it,” she said. “But it was too difficult for my children, and I’m worried about my in-laws, with whom we live – they’re categorised as vulnerable.”

“Every evening I’d have to go in through the cellar, shower and wash all my clothes,” Audrey continued. “At the end of a shift my head would be spinning; I’d feel nauseous from wearing a FFP2 mask for hours on end without a break.” After a few difficult days, she resolved to take more breaks and take her mask off more often.

The sense of fatigue from the acute stage of the pandemic has still not gone away – despite the nightly round of applause in support of health workers and the influx of donations during that period. “We’re not superheroes,” Audrey said. “People are tired of the psychological burden caused by the pandemic – and there’s another dimension to it when you’re on the coronavirus front line. My colleagues and I didn’t have a peaceful summer; we were too worried about the rising number of cases.”

Nevertheless, there have been some positive changes over the past few months, Isabelle noted: “We now know a lot more about the disease and how to stop it from spreading.”

A doctor at the same hospital, Arnaid Mori, agreed: “We’ve got better at detecting it and managing it,” he said.

“Last time, we had to close the surgical wards,” said Mori, a surgeon specialising in the digestive system who was drafted onto the Covid-19 front line. “But this time we’re asking to be able to continue performing other operations; at the very least, we should be able to operate on some patients such as those suffering from cancer, because a few months’ delay could have a life-threatening impact,” he said.

Delays in cancer diagnosis and treatment during the initial stage of the pandemic could result in excess mortality of two to five percent, according to a study by the Gustave Roussy Institute, a cancer research centre near Paris.

One potential pitfall in the weeks to come, Prudhomme said, is a lack of ventilators to go with intensive-care beds. “We think at least 12,000 machines are needed. France has a lot more ventilators than before – but only 5,500 on hospital beds.”

France has enough ventilators in storage for 29,000 patients, Health Minister Olivier Véran announced at the end of September. However, in order to free up 12,000 beds, “if necessary on any given day”, operating theatres and recovery wards would have to be dedicated to treating Covid-19 patients.

This would force surgical operations to be postponed once again.

*Name has been changed.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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