PARIS (Reuters) - France used two high-speed TGV trains and a German military plane to move more than three dozen critically ill coronavirus patients on Sunday to ease the pressure on overwhelmed hospitals in eastern France.
The Grand Est region was the first in France to be hit by a wave of coronavirus infections that has rapidly moved westwards to engulf the greater Paris region, where hospitals are desperately adding intensive care beds to cope with the influx.
The specially adapted TGV trains carried 36 patients to the Nouvelle-Acquitaine region in the southwest, where a line of ambulances waited outside Bordeaux station.
"We urgently need to relieve congestion in the region's intensive care units, because you have to stay one step ahead," Francois Braun, head of the SAMU paramedics, told RTL radio.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe on Saturday warned France's 67 million people that the toughest weeks in the fight against epidemic were still to come. The number of coronavirus deaths surpassed 2,000 this weekend and the country is in virtual lockdown.
Hospitals are racing to add intensive care facilities, sometimes taking ventilators out of operating theatres as they build makeshift units. Student medics are being drafted in and retired doctors are returning to the wards.
President Emmanuel Macron has deployed the army to help to move the sick while a field hospital has been set up in the eastern city of Mulhouse.
Paramedics in hazmat suits loaded several patients on life-support into a German Airbus <AIR.PA> A400M aircraft in Strasbourg for transfer across the border to the German city of Ulm.
European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin hailed the German aid as a symbol of European solidarity, though she expressed frustration at the failure of European Union members to agree on economic tools to mitigate the sharp downturn.
More than 662,700 people have been infected by the coronavirus globally and 30,751 have died, according to a Reuters tally.
(Reporting by Richard Lough and Jean-Stephane Brosse; Editing by David Goodman)