By John Irish and Marine Pennetier
PARIS (Reuters) - France will extend a national lockdown until April 15 after reporting its biggest daily death toll from coronavirus, its prime minister said on Friday, and officials warned that hospitals around Paris could be overwhelmed in 48 hours.
"At the end of these first 10 days of confinement it is clear that we are only at the beginning of the epidemic wave," Edouard Philippe told reporters after a cabinet meeting. "It has overwhelmed the East and is now arriving in the Ile-de-France (Greater Paris region) and the Hauts de France (northeast)."
President Emmanuel Macron imposed a lockdown on March 17 until end of the month to slow the spread of the highly infectious respiratory disease.
But doctors have said they are bracing for a new wave of cases next week after the government pressed ahead with local elections and thousands of people mingled in parks and streets before they were confined at home.
The capital and its suburbs now account for over a quarter of the 29,000 confirmed coronavirus infections in French hospitals, with almost 1,300 now in intensive care.
Worldwide, the pandemic has infected more than 551,800 people and killed nearly 24,900. [nL8N2AB5TN]
Highlighting the brutality of the coronavirus, a 16-year-old girl with no underlying health conditions became the first teenager to die of the virus on Thursday.
The death toll nationwide stood at 1,696, with signs that the virus is also becoming endemic in the southwest of France - even if the lockdown has slowed its advance.
Officials in the Paris region have been scrambling to locate more intensive care beds, ventilators and medical staff and spread the load of patients across the capital and its broad girdle of suburbs.
"The wave is here. The numbers are dizzying," said Aurelien Rousseau, the Paris regional head of the Public Health Authority, adding that efforts were being ramped up to meet the surge in infections.
France has already increased the number of intensive care units (ICU) from 5,000 to about 8,000, but doctors say the Paris region is close to its limit. The capital itself is trying to increase current capacity from 800 to 1,200 ICU.
Frederic Valletoux, the French Hospital Federation president, said he could see the situation becoming as bad as in eastern France, where the first major coronavirus cluster surfaced and where hospitals are already swamped with cases.
"We will be at the limit of our capacities in 24 to 48 hours," said Valletoux.
A nurse at a Paris hospital said that while the hours were long and conditions increasingly difficult, the situation was not yet out of control.
"Everybody in the hospital is doing what they can to make sure nobody is lost, but goodwill is not always enough and I fear that in the coming days we will put ourselves in situations that are morally and physically difficult to cope with."
SOLDIERS BROUGHT IN TO MOVE PATIENTS
The army has been drafted to move some critically ill patients from the Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar areas of the east to other cities, while on Thursday the first patients were moved to western France from the east on high-speed TGV trains.
"If we let hospitals cope by themselves, and let every territory that has been taken by the epidemic cope alone, then we shall head toward a catastrophe," Valletoux said.
Bruno Riou, a medical director at the AP-HP hospital group in Paris who is in charge of the coronavirus response team, told reporters it was likely that transfers would begin from Paris to other regions soon.
The hope, he said, was to send some patients to less stricken regions to give breathing room for Paris so that if the peak then shifted to other regions, the capital could again take patients in two weeks' time.
Isolation centers were being set up across Paris to allow people with symptoms to be assessed to avoid cramming hospitals.
"This center was set up to welcome patients that are suspected of having the coronavirus and to group patients in a place where we ensure patients are isolated," one of the attendants at a center in Cergy-Pointoise, in the northeastern Paris suburbs, told Reuters TV.
Other regions are also starting to feel the pinch with medical staff decrying a lack of equipment, especially masks.
"They are letting us enter the lion's cage without anything to protect ourselves and our patients," said Michelle Drouin, a nurse and union official in the southwestern Aude region.
She bemoaned that medics were having to replace their blouses with plastic bags. "They are turning us into serial killers. They are putting at risk health professionals and, because they are a vector of the virus, their patients too."
(Additional reporting by Johanna Decorse in Toulouse and Clotaire Achi in Cergy-Pontoise Editing by Mark Heinrich)