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French medics sue over mask, equipment shortages amid virus

/ 09:55 PM July 02, 2020

Media stand in front of the Eiffel Tower where the word “Merci”, the French word for ‘Thank you”, is emblazoned as France’s coronavirus death toll continued to climb, in Paris, Friday, March 27, 2020. Health workers fighting to save lives in France from COVID-19 have received a huge show of gratitude, from the Eiffel Tower. The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people, but for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death. (AP FILE PHOTO/Thibault Camus)

PARIS — A collective of French health care workers said Thursday it is seeking a broad legal inquiry into France’s failure to protect its members and their colleagues by providing adequate masks, gloves, and other protective equipment as the coronavirus swept across the country.

The professional association, Collectif Inter Urgences, (Inter-Emergencies Collective), said it was filing a four-count civil complaint alleging manslaughter, involuntary harm, voluntary failure to prevent damage, and endangering the life of others.

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As is common in French law, the complaint does not target a specific perpetrator but asks judicial authorities to determine who, across governments past and present, failed to renew personal protective equipment (PPE) stocks and adequately supply hospitals to prevent such a crisis.

More than 60 other legal complaints have been filed so far over how France, which has reported the fifth-highest number of virus deaths worldwide, managed its virus outbreak. The collective is building a database of accounts from paramedics and hopes its complaint has farther-reaching legal impact than those targeting specific government ministers or nursing homes.

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“We’ve had to run after stocks, run after PPE, which affected our ability to help people,” said Yasmina Kettal, a nurse at the Delafontaine Hospital in Saint-Denis in the Paris suburbs. “But there was also a constant feeling of insecurity and gutting fear because in some services there was no PPE stock, and in many, very little PPE, which led to misuses.”

The group notably wants to know the reasoning behind the changing protocols around PPE use in France. As French hospitals faced growing shortages of gear and increasing numbers of virus patients, staff members were told they could reuse their equipment or keep it for longer periods, for example.

The changing protocols “made us wonder as to whether they were scientific recommendations or shortage management,” Kettal said.

The health care workers in the collective said they were also psychologically impacted by the handling of the crisis.

“We found ourselves in situations with colleagues where we didn’t know what to wear, which masks, in which situations,” Nicolas Kazolias, an emergency medic at Tenon Hospital in Paris, said. “We don’t ever want to live this again.”

French Health Minister Olivier Veran acknowledged Thursday that “our country was not sufficiently stocked with masks” during the first wave of the virus, and the government is now asking all companies to keep at least 10 weeks-worth of masks for their employees in case of a second wave of infections.

France’s national health agency has confirmed more than 300 new virus clusters since the country started reopening May 11, and says about half have been contained. France has so far reported a total of 29,861 deaths linked to the virus, about half of them in nursing homes.

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French health care workers are already wondering whether they can make it through a second round.
“After going through all of this, the question as to who will be here for a second wave is in the minds of all of us, even mine,” Kettal said.

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