France is allowing healthcare workers infected with the coronavirus but with few or no symptoms to continue treating patients rather than self-isolating, an extraordinary emergency measure to reduce staff shortages in hospitals and other facilities caused by an unprecedented explosion of cases.
The special exemption from French quarantine rules being rolled out to hospitals, retirement homes, doctors’ surgeries and other essential health services is a testament to the growing strain on the French medical system from the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
It’s a calculated risk, balancing the possibility that health workers with Covid-19 could infect colleagues and patients against what the government believes is needed to keep essential services running. Outside of the health sector, for those not covered by the special exemption, France’s quarantine rules require at least five days of self-isolation for the fully vaccinated who test positive. Self-isolation of at least seven days applies to non-vaccinated persons.
Governments and industries have warned that isolation rules are leading to staff shortages in many sectors as the ommicron variety is causing an increase in infections in many countries. Quarantines have been shortened in some places, including in France, to get workers back to their posts.
But in Europe, France seems to be the only one that now also offers the possibility for health personnel to work infected.
There are increasing signs that the variant causes a less severe disease. But the deluge of infections continues to send more people to hospitals, putting pressure on those facilities, especially when medical personnel are absent.
French hospital authorities said the new flexibility of self-isolation would help them plug staff gaps as and when they open. “If the system is under a lot of strain and 50% of our staff is positive, the less symptomatic people will go to work because the patients still need to be cared for,” says Dr. Marc Leone, head of anesthesiology at the North Hospital in the southern city of Marseille.
“But we’re not in that situation yet,” he said.
The new rules were detailed in a health ministry warning message that was addressed to hospitals, healthcare facilities and health authorities on Sunday and was seen by The Associated Press. The changes will roll out this week.
The ministry’s alarm said the deluge of virus infections in France “poses a great risk of disrupting healthcare provision”. It described the measure as “exceptional and temporary” and said it will be lifted if the system is not so saturated with virus cases.
The exemption opens up the possibility for doctors, hospital staff and people who work with the disabled and other vulnerable people to continue working despite testing positive, provided they are fully vaccinated and do not cough or sneeze. In the Paris region, hospitals said the measure could be applied as a last resort if infected staff are urgently needed to keep services open and if they work voluntarily.
“If they are tired, have a sore throat and prefer to stay at home, no one will force them to come and work with Covid,” said Romain Eskenazi, communications director of two hospitals in the northern suburbs of the French capital.
Professor Rmi Salomon, a committee chair for the Paris Hospitals Authority, said that while staff absences are “a major problem”, allowing infected staff is “extremely difficult to implement”.
“Health workers say to themselves: I am afraid of transmitting the virus to patients,” he told France Info broadcaster.
The Health Ministry’s instructions say that, where possible, infected workers should not come into contact with unvaccinated patients or those at greater risk of serious illness from Covid-19.
The ministry also said they should limit their interactions with colleagues as much as possible and not participate in shared activities that involve removing face masks, such as breaks for food and drink.
With the highest number of confirmed daily virus cases in Europe, France is in an increasingly challenging position.
France’s average daily caseload has more than doubled in a week, with the country reporting a record 332,252 daily virus cases on Tuesday, as the omicron variant strains hospital staff and threatens to disrupt health care, transportation, schools and other services. . More than 20,000 people have been hospitalized in France with the virus, a number that has been rising steadily for weeks, but not as strong as the number of infections.
Covid-19 patients fill more than 72% of French ICU beds, and the once well-known healthcare system is showing signs of overload again. Most virus patients in ICUs are not vaccinated, although 77% of the population has had at least two doses.
More than 124,000 people with the virus have died in France, one of the highest recorded death tolls in the world.
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