Every day, France counts its coronavirus deaths. In hospitals, and now in hospitals for dependent elderly people (Ehpad). The government announced Thursday, March 27 - four days behind schedule - that at least 884 people had died of the Covid-19. "Very partial" data which could be largely undervalued since "all the establishments have not yet reported their cases", specified the Director General of Health, Jérôme Salomon.

In a Wittenheim nursing home near Mulhouse, nine people died within ten days, including seven with symptoms of the coronavirus. "Only one has tested positive," says Sarah, 25, who works there as a caregiver. The others could not be detected due to lack of tests. The Regional Health Agency (ARS) of Grand Est, which carries out a regional count, listed on March 31, 570 deaths in nursing homes, more than half of which in the Haut-Rhin.

The same is true in the structure where Muriel works, in Maine-et-Loire. "We deplore two deaths but we do not know what," said the 43-year-old life assistant. "Impossible to screen patients," she says, and the ARS Pays-de-la-Loire does not have regional data.

"I'm afraid they will die alone in their room"

Faced with the scale of the massacre, everyday life is not always easy to manage for the nursing staff who are on the front line. "I'm afraid they will die alone in their rooms, far from everyone, confesses Sarah. Let their last breath, they share with us. This is not work that we do. It is survival ".

The confinement of residents of the Ehpad began before the rest of the French. Between late February and early March, depending on the region. Residents are isolated in their rooms, forced to eat there alone with meal trays. "They haven't had a single visit in four weeks, recalls Sarah. Many people experience it very badly, they get depressed."

Donations of masks and food

Some residents are lucid when others ask several times a day why families are not coming. "We try to avoid the news on TV because they are too scary," says the caregiver from Mulhouse, seeing that some refused to eat. The anxiety is palpable in the elderly. "One of them asked me to help her write her will so she could leave her jewelry with her daughter," she says.

Activities such as hairdressing, pedicure or shows are suspended. "We are lucky to have a facilitator who comes two or three times a week to set up videoconferences with families to brighten up their daily lives," says Sarah. The walks in the gardens are also maintained, taking care to respect the safety distances.

In this particular context, solidarity came to unite the teams. "We are supported by the management who do not hesitate to put on the blouse but also our loved ones," says Muriel. Then, donations of masks or food also kept the troops motivated. "Each time, we had a different model, she says. Some came from dentists, the town hall, or people who diagnose asbestos," she laughs.

"My vocation is to help others"

For her part, Catherine, 54, head of a care unit in a nursing home in the Alpes-Maritimes, displays an intact motivation. For good reason, his establishment, confined since the end of February, does not deplore for the time being, no case of Covid-19. "My vocation is to help others," she says, adding that she takes all the necessary precautions at work and at home. Each morning, before entering the establishment, its temperature is checked.

In case of contamination of the residents, Catherine volunteered to accompany them in the Covid-19 zone, installed in one of the catering rooms of her establishment. "In this field hospital" are already installed beds, respirators, treatment carts, as well as gowns and glasses for the caregiver. Everything is planned so that the staff can sleep there. "I would be in isolation with them", explains Catherine, who refuses to leave this place to the youngest. "There is no question that they risk their lives," she continues. "For this kind of job, you have to know not to panic."

Muriel was first assigned to "the Covid zone" in her Ehpad in Maine-et-Loire. Despite a closed area with fire doors, it remembers some failures on the precautionary measures for the personnel. "We had only one mask per day and the overcoats were washed only once at the end of the day, after having been used by three different people", describes the assistant of life.

"We don't think about Ehpad"

After two weekends in this dedicated unit, Muriel chose to give up her job for fear of being contaminated. In life, she also takes care of her father who, at 75, has Parkinson's disease. "I'm ashamed, it may be cowardly, but I really had no choice," defends the one who now lives confined with her parents.

It's not always easy to be on the front lines. Especially since the anger of the nursing staff is mounting towards the government. "Containment was imposed too late," said Sarah. Hence a feeling of discredit. "The priority is hospitals, but we don't think about nursing homes. We never talk about us," said the Alsatian woman indignantly with her "shitty salary" which is around 1,300 euros net. But she's holding on. "If we're not there for the residents, who will do the work?"

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