France is turning to mass centers to speed up its vaccination campaign amid a “dizzying” increase in Covid-19 infections. In the Paris region, where vaccinations have lagged behind the rest of the country, local officials are demanding that the criteria for distributing vaccines be extended as well.
For several months, the French government resisted demands for a new Covid-19 lock before settling for “lockdown light light”. Now they have decided to change thanks to their vaccination under fire and embrace the mass vaccination centers that they had previously opposed.
As hospitals struggle to deal with a third wave of infections, Health Minister Olivier Véran announced on Monday that France will follow the lead of countries such as the United States and Britain, which have turned arenas into inoculation sites to deliver vaccines quickly.
“The Army’s health care will work to develop a certain number of large vaccination centers,” he said, adding that there would be at least 35 nationwide. On Tuesday, his government colleague Agnès Pannier-Runacher, Minister of Industry, said that supersites would open “in the coming days”.
France had previously talked about the idea, given a wide-ranging experiment with so-called “vaccinodromes” during the 2009 H1N1 swine flu pandemic.
>> Pandemic disarmament: Why France was ready for Covid-19 a decade too early
To date, jabs have been distributed in community halls, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies. But logistical barriers and a continued rise in infections – described as “dizzying” by the head of the French hospital federation on Tuesday – have forced the government to rethink.
Vaccine centers, super and small
The increase in cases is particularly dizzying in parts of the Ile-de-France region around Paris, where one-fifth of the French population and one-third of the national economy are at home. Once again, it has exposed enormous inequalities between rich areas and the capital’s poorer suburbs.
During all the official talk about driving against the clock, the Paris region’s vaccination drive has been frustratingly slow. Three months after the campaign, only 7% of the franciliens have been vaccinated, the lowest number in France.
The French authorities hope that a superior vaccination at the Stade de France, home of the national football and rugby teams, will help launch the campaign. The goal is to offer 10,000 daily jabs, starting in early April. Inoculation will not take place on the pitch but in spacious rooms behind the stands.
Azzédine Taïb, the communist mayor of nearby spots in the Seine-Saint-Denis area just north of Paris, says the Stade de France will be a welcome addition to the region’s occupied inoculation operation. However, he warns that the arena will not compensate for the lack of smaller, local vaccine centers.
“We have many vulnerable people in Seine-Saint-Denis for whom it is difficult to reach vaccination centers, even when they are located in nearby cities,” he explained in an interview with FRANCE 24. “And in the current context of widespread vaccine skepticism, it is all the more important that local health centers remain at the heart of the vaccine’s development. “
One of the eight branches that make up the Paris region, and the poorest on the French mainland, the Seine-Saint-Denis, has been hit particularly hard by the successive waves of the pandemic. With more than 500 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, this is again the area where Covid-19 is spreading fastest.
While many people in Paris and other affluent areas have switched to working from home, the capital’s poorer suburbs have provided most of the frontline workers who keep the metropolis afloat. The combination of cramped neighborhoods and a shortage of doctors has also left the local population particularly vulnerable.
“There are not enough vaccination centers in Seine-Saint-Denis,” said Taïb. “We have been lobbying the government for several months to have one in Stains. It would open in February but we are still waiting. In the whole department, 19 cities still do not have one, that is almost half of them.”
According to French health authorities, only 88,000 residents of the Seine-Saint-Denis have received their first bite. That is only 5.5% of the local population, compared to 10% in Paris. Government officials say the department has received more doses than its neighbors due to the high degree of infection and “socio-economic criteria”, which makes the difference in actual vaccinations even more striking.
Jabs for the workers
Demography obviously does not help in the Paris region, by far the most densely populated population in the country and the youngest, with close to 80% of the population under the age of 60 (against 73% nationwide).
Apart from health workers and people with existing conditions, France still only vaccinates people who are 75 years or older. This means that more than three quarters of Ile-de-France’s 12 million inhabitants are still not eligible for a first job.
Frustrated by the slow pace of vaccinations, local officials are calling for the campaign to be extended to people under 60. On Sunday, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo called on the government to “inhibit vaccinations” when more doses come in.
“The government insists that more vaccine doses are on the way, so let’s speed up the campaign and open it up to younger people, because their numbers are increasing rapidly in the intensive care units,” said Taïb. “Many 75 years or older have already been vaccinated,” he adds. “They also tend to stay at home longer, which means they are less exposed to the virus than the rest of the public.”
Last week, the mayor of nearby Saint-Denis and the head of the wider area of Seine-Saint-Denis released a joint statement urging the government to start vaccinating workers as well. Doing so, they wrote, “will help reduce the pressure on hospitals and break the chain of infections in the workforce, which is particularly vulnerable in the Seine-Saint-Denis.”
However, some health experts call for caution. They include Jean-Daniel Lelièvre, director of communicable diseases at Henri-Mondor Hospital in Créteil, east of Paris, for whom population density and virus incidence are important factors in a vaccination campaign – but not the most important.
“The studies are very clear: age is still the most important risk factor and we must be very careful when talking about a change in strategy,” he told FRANCE 24. “Right now it is not possible for me to start vaccinating young people and those who have good health when I still have between 800 and 900 transplant recipients for whom Covid-19 is much more dangerous. “
Government spokesman Gabriel Attal asked the question on Sunday and firmly rejected the idea of opening vaccinations to a younger public, calling the proposal both “irresponsible” and “unfair”.
President Emmanuel Macron, who joined the fight on Tuesday, said the country would expand vaccinations to people over 70 from Saturday, weeks ahead of schedule, and seek to launch targeted campaigns for certain professions, such as teachers, later this spring.
>> Covid-19: Macron promises to speed up vaccine rollout when cases “explode”
This article was translated from the original in French.