AMIENS, France (AP) — As France battles a new virus surge many believe was avoidable, intensive care aide Stephanie Sannier manages her stress and sorrow by climbing into her car after a 12-hour shift, blasting music and singing as loud as she can.
"It allows me to breathe," she said, "and to cry."
People with COVID-19 occupy all the beds in her ICU ward in President Emmanuel Macron's hometown hospital in the medieval northern city of Amiens. Three have died in the past three days. The vast medical complex is turning away critically ill patients from smaller towns nearby for lack of space.
With France now Europe's latest virus danger zone, Macron on Wednesday ordered temporary school closures nationwide and new travel restrictions. But he resisted calls for a strict lockdown, instead sticking to his "third way" strategy that seeks a route between freedom and confinement to keep infections and a restless populace under control until mass vaccinations take over.
The French government refuses to acknowledge failure, and blames delayed vaccine deliveries and a disobedient public for soaring infections and saturated hospitals. Macron's critics, in turn, blame arrogance at the highest levels. They said France's leaders ignored warning signs and favored political and economic calculations over public health — and lives.
"We feel this wave coming very strongly," said Romain Beal, a blood oxygen specialist at the Amiens-Picardie Hospital. "We had families where we had the mother and her son die at the same time in two different ICU rooms here. It's unbearable."
The hospital's doctors watched as the variant ravaging Britain over the winter jumped the Channel and forged south across France. Just as in Britain, the variant is now driving ever-younger, ever-healthier patients into French emergency rooms and critical care wards. Amiens medics did their best to prepare, bringing in reinforcements and setting up a temporary ICU in a pediatric wing.
After Britain's death toll shot higher in January, after new variants slammed European countries from the Czech Republic to Portugal, France continued vaunting its "third way."
French scientists' projections — including from the government's own virus advisory body — predicted trouble ahead. Charts from national research institute Inserm in January and again in February forecast climbing virus hospitalization rates in March or April. Worried doctors urged preventative measures beyond those already in place — a 6 p.m. nationwide curfew and the closure of all restaurants and many businesses.
Week after week, the government refused to impose a new lockdown, citing France's stable infection and hospitalization rates, and hoping they would stay that way. Ministers stressed the importance of keeping the economy afloat and protecting the mental health of a populace worn down by a year of uncertainty. A relieved public granted Macron a boost in the polls.
However, the virus wasn't finished. The nationwide infection rate has now doubled over the past three weeks, and Paris hospitals are bracing for what could be their worst battle yet, with ICU overcrowding forecast to surpass what happened when the pandemic first crashed over Europe.
Acknowledging the challenges, Macron on Wednesday announced a three-week nationwide school closure, a month-long domestic travel ban and the creation of thousands of temporary ICU beds. Parliament approved the measures Thursday.
While other European countries imposed their third lockdowns in recent months, Macron said that by refusing to do so in France, "we gained precious days of liberty and weeks of schooling for our children, and we allowed hundreds of thousands of workers to keep their heads above water."
At the same time, France has lost another 30,000 lives to the virus this year. It has also reported more virus infections overall than any country in Europe, and it has one of the world's highest death tolls — 95,640 lives lost.