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As Omicron surges, a French hospital creaks under staff shortages

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Emergency ward doctor Abigael Debit is increasingly spending her time finding beds for COVID-19 patients, either in her own public-private clinic outside Paris or in nearby hospitals, as the contagious Omicron variant rips through France.

Scientific data shows a lower risk of severe disease from Omicron compared to the Delta variant, but the sheer number of infections means that France's healthcare system is once again under strain, like elsewhere in Europe.

Medical personnel are fatigued and there are staff shortages, the result of resignations and an increase in doctors and nurses contracting the virus and going on sick leave. Meanwhile fast-filling wards are prompting patient transfers and the delay of non-emergency procedures.

"We have fewer beds in our intensive care ward, and fewer beds in our COVID ward compared with the first wave," Debit said between patient checks at the Saint Camille hospital where she works.

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Her unit receives emergency patients who will require in-patient care. COVID-19 patients occupy 10 of the 13 beds she manages. Her hospital's 29-bed COVID ward is full. Some 80% of the patients there are unvaccinated.

France reported a record 368,149 cases on Tuesday (11 January). The number of COVID-19 patients needing hospitalization is near an eight-month high, but an exodus of staff is making it harder to deliver care.

"There are staff on sick-leave. And there have been resignations...during the various COVID waves, so there is a real weariness," Debit said.

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People wearing protective face masks walk in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
People wearing protective face masks walk in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in France, January 5, 2022. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Her hospital had to reduce the number of ICU beds it operates to seven from 13 when the epidemic first erupted.

Hundreds of medics protested in Paris on Tuesday over pay and working conditions. Trade unions argue the epidemic has merely accelerated what they say is a years-long decline in working conditions in French hospitals.

"COVID is a convenient scapegoat but it is not the reason why staff are exhausted. Staff have been exhausted for years," said medical assistant Isabelle Pugliese at the rally.

Health Minister Olivier Veran said it was too early to know if the Omicron surge had peaked in France.

President Emmanuel Macron's focus is on getting shots in arms and tightening curbs on the freedoms of unvaccinated people.

Patient Nicole Legaye said she wished she could have been inoculated but was unable to because of a severe allergy.

"I'm no anti-vaxxer," the 70-year-old said. "When they said I couldn't be vaccinated, I had to listen," she said with a resigned shrug.

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