Covid ‘rebound’ in France: Which areas, and are doctors worried?

As cases of Covid and related hospital admissions are increasing due to the new variant Eris, we look at where cases are highest and if medics are concerned about an ‘epidemic reprisal’.

Hospitalisations for Covid-related issues are rising in France, prompting concerns about the new variant, Eris
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How big is this epidemic ‘rebound’?

Figures from the at-home medical service SOS Médecins show that the virus is once again in the top 10 of the conditions their staff see most often. The service said that “medical intervention due to suspected Covid-19 is rising in all age groups”.

Cases for the week to August 9 rose week-on-week by 56% among the very young (aged two and under) and older adults (up 34%), said health authority Santé publique France (SPF).

Similarly, epidemiologist Professor Mircea Sofonea spoke of an ‘epidemic reprisal’ in an interview with Le Parisien on August 10.

From July 31 to August 6, there were 920 admissions to A&E for Covid-related conditions, show figures from SPF. This was up from 720 (31%) compared to the week before.

However, these figures are still relatively low. In comparison, the weekly total for hospital admissions at the end of July 2022 (and even December 2022), was more than 4,000.

But the number of cases may be underestimated, said Professor Sofonea, due to much less testing now than during the height of the pandemic.

He said: “Today we have about the same visibility on the virus as before the first lockdown. We know that it is spreading, that there are pockets of infections, but it is impossible to know its exact level with the current means.”

This is because, since the end of June, personal testing data is no longer being collected, due to the law having put an end to the state of health emergency measures. France is no longer collecting the daily results of PCR or lateral flow tests.

The official ‘counter’ stopped at 1,167 daily cases on July 26, and the daily hospitalisation figures have not been published since March.

Where in France are the cases highest?

Cases are rising fastest in Pays de la Loire (up 210% week-on-week), Normandy (up 71%) and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (up 67%).

In real numbers, the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region (Landes, and Pyrénées-Atlantiques) was most affected by medical intervention from SOS Médecins, with a 284% rise in a week, and 789 cases reported in a week.

Occitanie recorded 730 cases, Île-de-France 689, Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur 638, and Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes 537.

Any cases of Covid identified by doctors must still be reported nationally.

However, these figures do not include any self-tests that people may be doing at home.

What is causing this ‘rebound’?

One of the main drivers for the new cases is thought to be the new Covid variant, dubbed Eris (or EG.5), which is a subvariant of the Omicron strain. Eris originally came from Southeast Asia, and has been found in the US and Europe, especially in the UK and France.

It has been identified as a ‘variant under monitoring’ by the World Health Organization (WHO), and is now accounting for a third of new cases in France (as determined by the positive tests being sequenced for variants).

Eris is more contagious and less affected by the body’s existing antibodies and vaccination protection. The protection afforded by vaccines also drops over time.

Summer holidays have also been blamed, as they cause people to gather together and travel. Similarly, the summer’s mixed weather has meant that some people have been gathering indoors, which “favours the spread” of the virus, said emergency doctor Gérald Kierzek to France 2.

“While an increase in the number of cases has been observed in all regions, most cases have been reported in very popular holiday regions, underlining the additional role of other types of gathering during the holiday period,” said Santé publique France in a statement.

How worried are experts about the rebound?

Currently, the new cases are under control, and the number of people being admitted to hospital and to intensive care are not at worrying levels nationwide.

The WHO has classified Eris as a ‘low’ risk to health, and it has not as yet been classified as a more worrying ‘variant of concern’.

Researcher Etienne Simon-Lorière told FranceInfo: “There is no worrying indicator in terms of [any extra] symptoms or the strength [of Eris].” This means that it does not appear to be causing more severe illness than previous variants.

The symptoms of Eris are very similar to those seen for previous variants. These include fever, runny nose, throat and/or chest pain, headaches, and fatigue.

However, Professor Sofonea advised caution, especially in the coming months.

He said: “Covid has taught us that we should not look at Covid at face value. Let’s look ahead to autumn; if it continues to gain ground, and is added to [seasonal] epidemics of flu and bronchiolitis, the repercussions on hospitals will be real.”

He called for the country to reinstate “a more reactive surveillance system”.

Professor Antoine Flahault, professor of Public Health at the University of Geneva and Director of the Institute of Global Health, also called for more measures, especially to protect vulnerable people such as the elderly or the immunocompromised. He told Le Figaro: “We should carry out tests on them so that early antiviral treatment can be given if needed.”

He said that the effective medications Paxlovid and Remdésivir “are not used enough in France” and that “many serious cases and deaths could be avoided” if there was better access to these medicines.

Professor Flahault added that it was a “shame” that France had not continued its surveillance of wastewater.

“It's a highly effective, inexpensive tool that is well-accepted by the public, since it doesn't require nasopharyngeal PCRs,” he said. “A daily sample of wastewater from treatment plants across the country can be used to monitor changes in the circulation of Sars-CoV-2, as well as many other viruses. This monitoring would also enable the early detection of new variants.”

Yet, SPF has said that in the event of a resumption of the epidemic, it would “immediately resume” its publication of weekly figures and surveillance of the situation.

New vaccination campaign

It comes as the Haute Autorité de santé (HAS) is set to launch a new vaccination campaign in France from autumn 2023, it has said.

Covid boosters will be available for people at a higher risk of the illness, especially the immunocompromised or those aged 65 and over.

The vaccination campaign will take place at the same time as the annual winter flu campaign. Last year, this opened on October 18 and ended on March 31.

You must wait six months after your last Covid vaccine (or Covid infection) before having a new booster.

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