PARIS — France's prime minister refused to rule out further local lockdowns Monday after health authorities reported about 43,000 new coronavirus infections over the weekend.
Nine big cities, including Paris, Marseille and Lyon, have now been placed under maximum virus alert as officials warn that France is experiencing the much-feared second wave of the COVID-19 epidemic. The path of the virus is accelerating rapidly across the country and the situation in French hospitals is deteriorating by the day. The government is issuing an appeal for volunteers on hospital front lines, including students and cooks.
"Nothing should be ruled out when we see the situation in our hospitals ... There can be no more slackening," Prime Minister Jean Castex said on broadcaster France Info.
"A national lockdown must be avoided by all means," Castex warned, calling on French people to help out by limiting private gatherings in their homes.
The government will review the health data Wednesday at the weekly defense council meeting to see if further action is needed following tighter restrictions in several metropolitan areas. French President Emmanuel Macron will speak to the nation following that.
France's maximum alert level takes effect when a region's infection rate exceeds 250 cases per 100,000 people and at least 30% of its intensive care beds are reserved for COVID-19 patients.
The director of the Paris region's public health agency, meanwhile, is raising the alarm about the dwindling amount of ICU space available because of the spike in serious virus infections.
"This morning we have 474 sick people in ICUs, that means we have reached over 42% of beds occupied (by COVID-19 patients)," Aurelien Rousseau told BFM TV.
Rousseau said the rate of positive tests reached 17% in the Paris region.
Dr. Yves Cohen knows that COVID-19 wards are filling up quickly. The head of emergency medicine at Avicenne and Jean-Verdier hospitals near Paris is credited with having discovered what could have been the country's patient zero — the first person to have suffered from the virus in France as early as the end of December.
"The number of patients has doubled over the past 15 days and we now have 16 patients with COVID-19 out of a total of 24 beds reserved for serious COVID patients in the ICU," Cohen told The Associated Press.
Cohen said the government is asking for volunteers since there is a shortage of staff.
"We have beds (for additional COVID-19 patients), but we don't have any staff to manage those beds," Cohen said.
France is one of Europe's hardest-hit countries in the pandemic, with at least 32,730 virus-related deaths.