As of Wednesday, France reported 56,989 confirmed cases of the novel corona virus, and the country’s death toll was the fourth highest in the world at 4,032, including 509 on the last day. The actual number of deaths could be higher since health authorities initially did so without deaths outside of the hospitals on the list.
While the government is desperately trying to curb the spread of the virus with expanded nationwide blocking and testing, many are wondering how France ̵
The coronavirus pandemic has shaken the French health care system for weeks, although the system has been largely intact so far. Certain patients in critical condition are brought with medically equipped high-speed TGV trains from areas with overloaded intensive care units to less affected regions with greater capacity. The first medical transfers from the Paris region with 36 patients went to Brittany in western France on Wednesday.
As public health officials struggle to accommodate an increasing number of patients, details have been released of how the Mulhouse prayer meeting triggered the country’s epidemic and triggered the transmission of the virus to the community, which continued for weeks before being noticed . At least that is the opinion of the French Minister of Health, Olivier Véran.
“The turning point was the evangelical gathering in Mulhouse,” Véran told the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche. “The epidemic spread across the country from the gathering.”
Since the pandemic began, churches and other places of worship have been linked to the worldwide transmission of the corona virus in countries such as South Korea, India and the United States. France does not seem to be an exception.
When the five-day prayer meeting in the Evangelical Church – known as Christian Open Door – began on February 17, France had only 12 confirmed cases of Covid-19, none in Alsace, the region where Mulhouse is located.
At that time, there was little public concern about the virus, which at that time was still largely viewed as a Chinese problem. Even in Italy, the first signs of the outbreak, which would soon devastate a large part of the regions of Lombardy and Veneto, were not yet known. Therefore, local authorities in Alsace have not paid much attention to the fact that hundreds of people developed mild flu-like symptoms in the days after the prayer meeting.
The first confirmed case of Covid-19 in Alsace was only diagnosed on February 29, according to Christophe Lannelongue, head of the regional health office in the French administrative region Grand Est. The patient was a woman whose children had been to church with her grandparents, although she had not attended them herself.
Lannelongue’s office didn’t realize what had happened – or the extent of the possible outbreak – until two days later, he told Radio France, which was monitoring connections across the country from Mulhouse Church.
On March 2, a man in Nîmes, a town 388 miles south of Mulhouse, near the French Mediterranean coast, tested positive for covid-19. When the local authorities asked about his movements, he announced that he had attended the Mulhouse prayer meeting days earlier.
That realization, Lannelongue said, was his “Eureka” moment. “It was the meeting at the Christian Open Door in Mulhouse!” he told Radio France.
Until the authorities had a clearer picture of the size of the transmission, containment was no longer possible. The Christian Open Door became a case study of how quickly the corona virus can spread in a networked world.
Church officials say they refuse to be held responsible for the outbreak because the government had not recommended health protocols at the time of the prayer meeting. “Contrary to what some political leaders have said, we have not ignored basic security rules since none existed at the time,” said Church spokeswoman Nathalie Schnoebelen in a statement to the French press.
Cases related to the Mulhouse church have been identified in previously untouched regions across France – Orléans, Dijon, Besançon, Mâcon and others.
A Strasbourg-based nurse who was in the audience was identified as the source of an outbreak among other nurses in local hospitals that infected approximately 250 people, according to Lannelongue.
Three Corsican pensioners flew home after the meeting and contributed to an outbreak on the island. According to the last census, the authorities confirmed 263 cases in Corsica and 21 deaths.
Mamadou Karambiri, a well known pastor from Burkina Faso, was also at the Mulhouse meeting. When he and his wife flew home afterwards, they became the first two confirmed cases of Burkina Faso. The West African nation has now reported 261 cases and 14 deaths.
Since France is currently blocked and all but essential travel outside the home is prohibited, the Mulhouse scenario is unlikely to be repeated. But on Wednesday, the French government repeated its message about the need to pause before the upcoming religious holidays in April – Easter, Passover, and Ramadan.
Sibeth Ndiaye, a government spokeswoman, urged the public not to change the location of her detention during the holidays. “If you move across the country without knowing it, you can of course be a carrier of the virus and take it to places that have so far been spared,” she said.