France launches two mass-testing Covid campaigns today

The two towns are the first to roll out free mass testing ahead of Christmas as part of the government’s ‘test, alert, protect’ push. We explain 

14 December 2020
By Hannah Thompson

Two areas of France have today launched a mass Covid-19 testing campaign, in a bid to better understand how the virus spreads, but also to isolate positive cases ahead of Christmas.

Testing sites have been set up in Le Havre, Seine-Maritime, Normandy; and Charleville-Mézières, Ardennes, Grand-Est. They will offer both antigen and PCR tests.

Antigen tests take 15-30 minutes to return a result, while a PCR test can take 24-48 hours.

The campaigns aim to help better understand how the virus spreads throughout the population, and to enable the departments to better isolate the positive cases ahead of the festive holiday.

Testing is voluntary, free, and available without a prior appointment.

The campaigns are being managed by mayors, local prefects, and the Assurance-maladie.

Why these towns?

The towns of Le Havre and Charleville-Mézières have been chosen for these initial campaigns because they have both been badly hit during the second wave of the virus.

They also have ideal demographics, a mix of rural and urban inhabitants, and geographic “diversity” making them “ideal for experimentation”, said the Agence régionale de santé (ARS).

Le Havre recorded the highest incidence of cases in Normandy, while the urban area of Charleville-Mézières-Sedan was also one of the worst-affected areas, with more than 210 cases per 100,000 inhabitants at the peak.

Health Minister Olivier Véran said: “[These campaigns] are part of our experiments with ‘testing, alerting, protecting’, which is continuing to evolve as we learn how to face up to this pandemic.”

Le Havre

In Le Havre, there are 70 sites and 250 healthcare workers on the ground. These comprise 50 sites in pharmacies and local labs, and 20 larger sites designed to accommodate hundreds of people per day.

There will also be tests taking place in schools and in four lycées.

Doctors, pharmacists, and the French Red Cross are all involved.

Mayor of Le Havre (and former Prime Minister) Edouard Philippe told newspaper le Journal du Dimanche: “The idea is to make the offer to be tested to the 270,000 inhabitants of the 54 communes of the urban community of Le Havre, for free and without an appointment, with results within half an hour.”

He said: “I have not set a [firm] objective. In Liverpool, they managed to test around a third of the 500,000 inhabitants in four days. So if we test 50% of the population, I would be the happiest of men. We will no doubt go over that [target].

“If we manage to test a significant number of people, we will discover more asymptomatic cases. And that way we will avoid [more] infections.”

Those who test positive will benefit from immediate contact tracing, with contacts set to receive a phone call as soon as a positive test is identified.

Charleville-Mézières

The plan is to offer testing to 122,000 inhabitants across 58 communes. There will also be two other communes in the north of the Ardennes which will also be invited for testing.

The ARS Grand-Est has said that the aim is to do 4,500 tests per day. There will also be 30,000 additional antigen tests, added to the 20,000 already in stock. Four teams of testers will also go into workplaces in the departments.

People who test positive can - if they wish - self-isolate for seven days in a hotel.

The testing campaign is estimated to have cost the department €100,000.

Boris Ravignon, mayor of Charleville-Mézières, said: “We must be able to identify [positive] people, isolate them, and enable them to do that.”

Those who test positive will benefit from “a basket of local products” to help them through their isolation period, he said, as well as “a dozen free tickets for entry to the local pool” for use once they have recovered.

 

Scientists urge caution

Despite the far-reaching aims of the campaigns, scientific advisory body Le Conseil Scientifique has warned that “the benefits of such a large-scale operation are not yet established”.

In a statement from November 17, Le Conseil said: ”The early model results suggest prudence, and highlight the numerous conditions that must be met for a strategy such as this to succeed.”

One of the main criteria is ensuring that enough people go to be tested, with the numbers expected unlikely to offer a full picture of the extent of the virus spread.

Mr Philippe acknowledged that in Le Havre, the number of people to get a test could be under 50%, while Charleville-Mézières prefect Jean-Sébastien Lamontagne said: “We hope to reach 15-20% of the Ardennes population, so around 50,000 people.”

Similarly, the tests are never foolproof; there may be false negatives, and some people may test negative because they are still in a period of incubation, but would test positive a few days later.

Mayor Mr Ravignon said: “The mindset of people who go to get tested before Christmas, is not to think that [just because you’ve been tested] you’re a Superman who can move around and not get the virus.

“It is, in contrast, to protect your immunity during the very few days that remain between now and going to meet those you love [for Christmas].”

Similar mass testing operations are also planned for Roubaix, Nord, Hauts-de-France; and Saint-Étienne, Loire, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes; in early-to-mid January, Mr Véran confirmed at a press conference on Thursday December 10.

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Covid-19 France: Should I get a Covid test before Christmas?

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