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Strasbourg (France) (AFP) - France on Thursday carried out its first train evacuation of coronavirus patients from the hard-hit east of the country, which has registered over 1,300 hospital deaths in the fast-spiralling epidemic.
The specially adapted high-speed TGV train, which in normal times whizzes travellers between France's main cities and to other European capitals, evacuated 20 patients from the Alsace region bordering Germany and Switzerland to help relieve overstretched facilities there, officials said.
The patients were destined for hospitals in the Pays de la Loire region along the western Atlantic coast.
President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday visited the eastern city of Mulhouse, home to a cluster of infections, where the army has set up a field hospital to help relieve hospitals.
He announced on the trip that the French military would also start supporting public services strained by the epidemic.
"The whole nation has been mobilised" in the fight against the disease, Macron said while wearing a face mask, while promising more investment for hospitals.
Thursday's TGV evacuation, a first for Europe, saw the train's carriages transformed into intensive care units that can accommodate four patients and six medical personnel apiece.
The country has over 11,500 coronavirus patients in hospital, of whom more than 2,800 are in critical care.
France's national health agency, Sante Publique France, estimated Thursday that at least 40,000 new cases of COVID-19 infection were diagnosed by general practitioners last week, nearly double the roughly 25,000 people who have officially tested positive, most of those in hospitals, since the start of the outbreak.
Most cases were in the larger Paris region, the east, and the Pays de la Loire.
The agency's chief, Jerome Salomon, warned Thursday that "the crisis will be long, and the coming days will be particularly difficult."
The government is expected to announce soon an extension of the initial 15-day home confinement period that came into force on March 17 in a bid to brake the spread of the virus.