PARIS (Reuters) - Outside a Paris retirement home on Wednesday, a director rushed out and told the man delivering a coffin to use a side entrance, away from prying eyes.
The coffin, one of three brought the same morning, came hours after officials said 13 elderly residents had died in the home since March 11 and that more than 80 others were believed to have the coronavirus.
Most of the dead were aged over 90, an official at the regional health authority told Reuters. Authorities have not been able to establish the cause of death in most cases.
“The deliveries are non-stop. There are going to be more on Monday,” the delivery man said as he removed the casket’s plastic cover.
The facility in Paris’ 12th district is one of several care homes across France to be hit by the coronavirus outbreak. There have been large numbers of deaths too at retirement homes in Italy and Spain.
Almost 1 million people reside in care homes in France. In the Paris region alone, the regional health authority says that 148 out of the 700 homes in its network have reported coronavirus cases and at least 61 residents have died.
The Rothschild Foundation home in Paris was put on red alert on March 6 as the epidemic took hold. Staff were given stricter entry protocols, told to wear gloves and masks at all times, disinfect everything and urged to isolate suspected cases.
“We knew it was coming. The first two people with symptoms were tested and then isolated, but once it was established that they had it, we stopped testing because it’s then a cluster. You can’t allow it to spread,” said a health worker aware of the situation.
Since then all residents have been confined to their rooms where they are fed and washed. But while the number of new cases has slowed, the deaths continue.
Executives at the home did not respond to Reuters phone calls seeking detailed information about what was happening in the home, but in a brief exchange, one executive described the situation at the facility as very tough.
France’s official coronavirus death toll stands at some 1,100 people, but that does not include deaths outside hospitals. Fatalities in nursing homes have surged recently with dozens of deaths reported across the country.
“When you don’t have enough staff and equipment and need to care for fragile people then it leads to a high mortality rate. When it enters into a nursing home, you are going to see 20% of residents die,” said Thierry Amouroux, a nurse and representative at the National Union for Professional Nurses.
Senior care home representatives warned the Health Minister in a letter seen by Reuters that workers in the homes needed 500,000 masks. At least 100,000 people could die if the situation was not brought under control, they wrote.
Jerome Larche, an intensive care doctor in Montpellier, whose company also operates care homes, said it was critical to avoid mass contaminations.
“Most of the residents can’t be taken to intensive care so if there are contaminations, there will be deaths,” Larche said.
At the Bergeron-Grenier care home in western France, half of carers have opted to confine themselves within the home to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
“Before, we were always afraid. No matter how careful we were, we still had this fear of infecting our residents by bringing the virus from outside,” administrative assistant Patricia Vandebrouck said.
Additional reporting by Antony Paone and Tangi Salaun in Paris; Editing by Mike Collett-White