A nurse tends to a patient suffering from COVID-19 in the ICU at the La Timone hospital in Marseille, southern France, Tuesday Feb. 2, 2021. COVID patients occupy 88% of the Marseille region's intensive care beds, and virus pressure on French hospitals is steadily rising in recent weeks despite curfews and other restrictions. (AP Photo/Daniel Cole)
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MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Nurses wheeled a 16-year-old boy suffering shortness of breath into one of the few available intensive care rooms at southern France's biggest hospital — its youngest COVID patient to date.

Nearby, medics checked the blood sugar levels of an older, unresponsive virus patient, speaking to him in soothing tones as a recording of Quranic verses brought in by his family played softly in the background.

This is daily life in La Timone's ICU ward in Marseille, as France grapples with whether to impose a third lockdown and struggles to ramp up the pace of vaccinations.

While the country holds its breath to see if a daily 12-hour curfew and other restrictions are enough to keep a new crisis at bay, all eyes are on hospitals like La Timone, which has been a flashpoint in France throughout the pandemic.

“It’s been tense since the beginning of the second wave, around October or November,” Dr. Julien Carvelli, head of the ICU ward, told The Associated Press. “We’re afraid that, in the coming weeks, we won’t be able to take in and treat all ICU patients,” including those with illnesses other than COVID.

France has lost more than 77,000 lives to the virus, and more than 400 on Tuesday alone. Virus infections have stabilized in recent days but remain stubbornly high.

But President Emmanuel Macron’s government says it won’t shut down the country again unless its hospitals are again at risk of overflowing with virus patients.

Carvelli understands the logic, and acknowledges the difficulties posed by the protracted lockdowns that France imposed twice last year. But he warns that hospital needs could sharply worsen any day.

His ward was lucky to have a free bed when the hospital’s pediatric department asked for a place for the 16-year-old virus patient. He was hospitalized with respiratory problems but couldn’t be kept in the pediatric ward, where doctors are treating children with immune deficiencies who are at especially high risk from the virus.

So they found a place for him in the ICU. Nurse Gavin Douce settled the boy into his room, taking blood samples and explaining how to use the emergency call button. The boy listened silently but attentively, taking quick short breaths. A pack of apple sauce sat on his tray, and an iPhone was tucked under his tube-covered right hand.

In neighboring rooms, nurses and doctors checked on other patients, constantly wiping down equipment and furniture.

Their hushed discussions about treatment were accompanied by the periodic beeping of life-saving monitors – and in a welcome moment of levity, interrupted by a burst of contagious laughter down the hall.

The staff is just hoping they have enough energy to make it through the pandemic.

“No one thought it could have lasted this long. We were told it was temporary,” said Douce. “The fatigue builds up.”

For Carvelli, the only solution is fast, mass vaccinations. He said he’s “disappointed” by France's slow vaccine rollout, the government’s nursing home-focused vaccine strategy and vaccine delivery delays by pharmaceutical companies struggling to keep up with the demand.

“What people want is hope,” he said, “and the hope is vaccinations.”


Angela Charlton in Paris contributed.


Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus -pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak