PARIS — The French government is doubling down on efforts to boost COVID-19 vaccinations as a fourth wave of infections threatens to hit earlier than expected.
Emmanuel Macron is expected to agree Monday to make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory for health and care home workers. He could go further and impose the use of the so-called COVID-19 green pass more widely, bring in travel restrictions or charge for COVID-19 tests linked to leisure purposes.
The moves come as authorities stare down the barrel of another deadly outbreak of infections just as the rate of people getting a first jab has reached a new low. From a peak of over 400,000 per day at the end of May, it's dropped to 200,000 per day, according to health ministry figures.
France's overall rate of injections is still over 600,000 per day, which is slightly above the EU average. But two-thirds of these are second jabs, which does not bode well for France's direction of travel. This is especially worrisome for government health officials as the jab is now available to everyone over the age of 12 years old.
While there also may be an effect from people going on holiday, the slump “shows there’s a reluctance to get vaccinated,” said Gilbert Deray, head of the kidney unit at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. “If we are hitting the glass ceiling, it’s serious because we are below the 60 percent coverage.”
The slowing of vaccinations in France is similar to trends observed in countries such as the U.S. and Germany, where there have been calls for more creative vaccination offers.
But in France — where vaccine skepticism is especially entrenched — doctors are warning that this barrier is serious enough to threaten the goal of reaching herd immunity by fall. Currently half of the French population has received a first COVID-19 jab, and only a third have had both doses.
France is slightly below the EU average in terms of the proportion of people vaccinated, but it's lagging Western countries such as the U.K. or U.S.
France's cases are also picking up. The country’s daily infections have roughly tripled in two weeks, according Johns Hopkins data. The Haute Autorité de Santé (HAS) said on Friday that the highly transmissible Delta variant accounted for 43 percent of the sequenced positive cases from June 28 to July 4, compared with 21 percent the previous week.
With Europeans heading to the beaches and mountains this summer, experts say this variant could account for 70 percent of all cases in Europe in early August, rising to 90 percent by the end of that month. And the only way to prevent another surge in severe cases and deaths is to vaccinate, and quickly, according to Andrea Ammon, head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.
“There are still too many individuals at risk of severe COVID-19 infection whom we need to protect as soon as possible,” Ammon said recently.
New measures in the pipeline
Macron's new drive aims to beat back vaccine hesitancy and avoid a fourth coronavirus wave that could plunge France back into economic misery and sink his own re-election chances.
The president is expected to announce new measures after a special Cabinet meeting Monday with ministers and top-ranking officials to discuss ways to boost vaccinations and beat the impending fourth wave.
The government is particularly concerned about the vaccine hesitancy among health care workers. Only 60 percent of care home workers, and 80 percent of private medics, have received their first COVID-19 jab, according to figures from France’s national health body.
It's expected the government will make jabs mandatory for health workers after France COVID-19 advisory body came out in support of it last Friday.
France may also decide to extend the use of the COVID-19 green pass — a digital or paper certificate used to prove immunity — to venues such as cinemas, theaters and restaurants. Currently, the pass, which includes proof of vaccination or negative tests, is mandatory for events exceeding 1,000 participants.
Other measures on the table include charging for COVID-19 tests to encourage people to get vaccinated and imposing travel restrictions.
“But will the government take [coercive measures] less than 10 months before a presidential election? Nothing is less certain,” said Professor Deray.
Macron is battling a unique history of vaccine hesitancy, borne out of a series of mismanaged and bungled medical events, according to Emilie Karafillakis, head of European research for the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In the 1980s, the country experienced the devastating impact of contaminated blood products, infecting several thousand hemophiliacs with HIV and hepatitis C. Then, in the 1990s, rumors spread that a hepatitis B vaccine could cause multiple sclerosis — claims which have been disproven.
The government's failure to communicate clearly “led to an erosion of trust” in vaccinations, Karafillakis said, and a broader mistrust “in general” of French authorities and politicians.
To get people into vaccination centers, the government has doubled down with a battery of measures, including more flexibility in booking second jabs, outreach programs and ad campaigns.
Some indications suggest the skepticism is easing. Recent polling by Odoxa, for example, shows that 81 percent of French people have been vaccinated or intend to get vaccinated, up from around half earlier in the year.
But the polling figures show different shades of enthusiasm. Some 10 percent, for example, say they will “probably” get vaccinated.
“When the vaccination was opened up to everyone, all those who really wanted to get the jab rushed to book appointments,” said Odoxa pollster Emile Leclerc. “Now we are reaching those who are a little bit suspicious, or who don't have any plans to travel abroad this summer, or who simply want to take their time.”
This story has been updated to clarify the data source for France’s infection rates.
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