Covid-19: Advice for tests, masks, isolation as cases rise in France

‘We must still remember that Covid is a virus that can cause severe illness’

Masks, vaccination, testing - what should people do now that cases of Covid are rising again?

Health specialists in France have shared advice on how the public should behave amid rising Covid cases and hospitalisations, including on whether to test, self-isolate, or wear masks. 

After a lull since the end of 2023, Covid is currently spreading again, with a rise in positive PCR tests in laboratories and hospitals. Waste water testing has also revealed a higher presence. 

Read also: Why Covid-19 hospital cases are rising again in France 
Read also: Covid-19 in France: Hospital consultations remain low, but rising

“This resurgence is linked to a combination of factors: slightly more transmissible variants, poorer immunity, and seasonal events that encourage interaction and hence transmission of the virus," said epidemiologist Dr Justine Schaeffer, from Santé publique France (SPF), to Le Figaro.

So far, the impact on the hospital system remains low, with 770 hospital admissions for suspected Covid in the week beginning June 17, representing 1.1% of all hospital admissions. Yet, Dr Schaeffer warned that even though figures remain low, the risk still remains.

“The virus is spreading and this is not that surprising; this also happened in spring-summer 2023. And while figures are not especially concerning, we must remember that Covid is still an illness that can cause severe conditions,” said Dr Schaeffer.

Do we still need to test?

Testing has significantly decreased since the peak of the pandemic, and a recent SPF showed that a third of people with symptoms had not had a test. 

However, experts recommend that anyone with symptoms should get a test, especially if you could be in contact with an elderly person or someone with a compromised immune system.

 "The most important thing is to get tested if you live next to someone at risk of developing a serious form of the disease, so that you do not unknowingly infect them," said Dr Paul Frappé, president of the GP group le Collège de la médecine générale.

Are older tests still OK to use? 

Many households likely still have boxes of at-home tests in their cupboards, leftover from the pandemic. But these are likely no longer valid, Dr Frappé warned. 

"They still work on the new variants, but they have a shelf life,” he said. Depending on the manufacturer, tests expire from between six months and two years after the date of manufacture. Older at-home lateral flow tests may show a false negative.

"A negative self-test does not mean that you do not have Covid, or any other infectious disease," said Dr Schaeffer.

Should people get PCR tests?

PCR tests (those done with a swab, by health professionals) are considered to be more effective and accurate than at-home lateral flow tests.

Similarly, you can be tested for Covid at the same time as other conditions.

"Today, Covid, influenza and bronchiolitis are tested in parallel,” said Dr Schaeffer. “In the case of Covid, for example, doctors can prescribe Paxlovid to people who are at high risk of progressing to a severe form.” 

Paxlovid (nirmatrelvir or ritonavir) is an antiviral drug from laboratory Pfizer. It is the only medicine that GPs can prescribe to people who are at risk of developing a severe form of the virus.

Do people need to self-isolate?

While there are no longer any rules in place that require people with Covid to self-isolate, it is still recommended by health professionals, to prevent the virus from spreading to vulnerable individuals.

“You have to use your common sense," said Dr Schaeffer. “If you have a respiratory infection of any kind, the fewer people you see, the less chance you have of passing it on to others.”

Should people still wear masks?

People who test positive but who cannot self-isolate are recommended to wear masks in public and around vulnerable people. Wearing a mask even if you are not ill may also provide you with some protection in public.

"Whether you've been tested or not, whether you've got Covid or something else, putting on a mask when you have respiratory symptoms is never a waste of time,” said xx Schaeffer. “Any mask is better than none, but the more advanced the equipment, the better the protection.”

Other preventative measures, including hand washing and keeping spaces isolated is also key, said Dr Frappé.

What is the vaccination situation? 

Vaccination is still recommended, particularly for people at higher risk (people aged 65 and over, and/or with health problems). 

People aged over 80 and those with immunodeficiency should have a booster dose in the spring, three months after their last dose, to ensure they are still fully protected.

Read also: Next Covid vaccination campaign to begin in France

“An annual campaign is organised in autumn, at the same time as for influenza, with a vaccine adapted to the variants in circulation,” said Dr Schaeffer.