By John Irish
PARIS (Reuters) - Five hundred and seventy people have died in nursing homes in France's eastern region during the coronavirus outbreak, suggesting the national death toll linked to the illness could be far higher than thought.
France on Wednesday became the fourth country to register 4,000 coronavirus deaths, but that figure covers only hospitals.
Fatalities in nursing homes have surged in recent days, with dozens of deaths reported across the country. Officials have held back on directly linking the deaths to the coronavirus given the age and health condition of many who have died.
"As of March 31, 411 nursing homes have been affected by COVID-19 out of 620 in the region," The Grand Est Public Health Authority said in a statement. "Five hundred and seventy people have died in total."
That region was the first in France to be overwhelmed by a wave of infections that has rapidly moved west to engulf greater Paris, where hospitals are desperately trying to add intensive care beds to cope with the influx of critically ill patients.
The national health agency will soon update its figures to include nursing homes and people who may have died in their own residences because of the virus.
Almost 1 million people live in about 7,000 nursing homes in France.
In the past week, health agencies across the country have publicly confirmed about 100 deaths in nursing homes. Nineteen have died since March 20 in one home in the southeast.
The care sector has called for blanket testing for all personnel as the virus was often entering these homes through staff.
Senior care home representatives warned the health minister in March that workers needed 500,000 masks and at least 100,000 people could die if the situation was not brought under control.
"We have to limit the impact on old people as we know that they are the most fragile," said Romain Gizolme, head of an association for the care of the elderly.
Authorities asked nursing home staff on March 6 to toughen entry protocols, wear gloves and masks and isolate suspected cases.
However, one worker in the Lyon region said that as of last week in her nursing home, residents were still dining together and staff were not wearing masks. Since then two workers had tested positive and four residents had fallen sick, she said.
France recorded its worst daily coronavirus death toll on Wednesday, taking the official tally to 4,032, while the number of cases rose 17%. Of those more than 6,000 people need life-support, including a third in and around Paris.
In the Paris region, the number of intensive care beds is practically at the same level as the number of patients, and authorities are trying to increase capacity by 200 beds.
"The most difficult part is ... to make sure that the patient is in a stable state," Martin, a nurse in the COVID unit at the Ambroise Pare clinic in Paris' Neuilly suburb, told Reuters TV before dealing with a patient in intensive care.
"It can go from a state wherein he's doing well one minute and then he's not."
Some 100 Paris patients are being transported transferred to other regions and health care professionals transferred the other way.
Respirators are also being put into people's homes to save space at hospitals with patients monitored remotely.
"We really now are on the frontline of the battle," said an official at the regional health authority.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Alison Williams and John Stonestreet)