Patients receive an injection of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine on the opening day of a mass vaccination centre set up in the Olympique Lyonnais soccer Stadium, in Decines-Charpieu, Saturday, April 3, 2021. (Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, Pool via AP)

Europe ramps up vaccinations as virus haunts Easter holidays

PARIS — The French city of Lyon’s main stadium opened as a mass vaccination centre during Easter weekend, and thousands spent the holiday lining up for injections at hippodromes, velodromes or other sites as France tried to speed up shots amid a new rush of coronavirus cases.

But as Europe celebrated its second Easter in a row under the cloud of the pandemic, some cities put vaccinations on hold over during the long holiday weekend — defying French President Emmanuel Macron’s insistence that “there are no weekends or days off during vaccination.”

Medical workers need “a little rest at last,” said an official with the French city of Strasbourg, which shut down vaccination facilities from Good Friday through Easter Monday, a public holiday. To ensure that residents still had access to potentially life-saving vaccines, Strasbourg expanded vaccination hours and administered all of its weekly supply of doses between last Monday and Thursday, the official said.

Spain, Italy and Germany faced a similar holiday vaccination challenge.

Spaniards lined up for shots on Easter Sunday in Barcelona and other points around the country, but Madrid halted vaccinations at local health centres to give staff a break. The Spanish capital continued to give shots at a soccer stadium and a new hospital built to help handle pandemic cases.

With Spain fearing yet another surge of infections like the one now overwhelming French intensive care wards, Spanish Health Minister Carolina Darias had urged regional authorities to keep up vaccinations throughout Easter Week.

The French city of Sarcelles, north of Paris, was among those whose vaccination centre stayed open Easter Sunday, amid mushrooming infections and demand. The centre’s organizers planned to inject 2,000 doses Sunday — twice their daily average.

Those waiting to get inside felt lucky and relieved. The surrounding Val d’Oise region now has the highest coronavirus infection rate in France, and the situation in Sarcelles symbolizes how the pandemic has worsened existing inequalities.

“The problem is with people who do not qualify yet and are in a hurry, which I understand as they want to get back to a normal life,” said Dr. Majida El Mokhtari. “Unfortunately we are not able to vaccinate everybody with the doses that are distributed to us.”

The city’s working class residents have higher exposure to the virus because many can’t work remotely. In the area’s housing projects, many families have multiple generations living in close quarters. Language barriers make sorting out vaccination arrangements a challenge for many immigrants.

In Lyon, French first division soccer club Olympique Lyon opened its stadium and provided volunteer employees to help medical workers and firefighters with a mass vaccination drive that started Saturday. Authorities plan to administer 3,000 doses per day during the first three days.

Club President Jean Michel Aulas expressed hope that the effort would help create “social cohesion” at a time of strain and uncertainty, as France entered a third partial lockdown starting Sunday.

Meanwhile, the French military announced that it would open seven vaccination centres starting Tuesday to help inject civilians.

In Italy, those fortunate to get a vaccine in Milan on Sunday received an extra reward: an Easter cake in the shape of a dove and packages of pasta. Only one hospital in the city administered vaccines on Easter, according to Italian media. Among those administering the injections at Milan’s Niguarda Hospital were retired hospital doctors volunteering their time.

“We’re just making our contribution to this important battle” against COVID-19, Dr. Vincenzo Rapisarda told SkyTG24 TV.

German vaccination centres appeared to mostly stay open over the holiday, but numbers of injections are typically slower on weekends.

The accelerated Easter actions in some European Union countries stood in contrast to the slow beginning of Europe’s vaccine rollout over Christmas and New Year’s.

While France remains far behind Britain and the United States in terms of vaccinating its population, the pace is starting to pick up. France has administered 12 million vaccine doses overall, including nearly 1 million in the last three days.

Spanish authorities are speeding up vaccination efforts with the arrival of 2 million doses over the past week, its biggest lot yet. Spain had administered 8.5 million doses as of Friday.

Across the Channel, authorities in Britain were planning to test a series of measures including “coronavirus status certifications” over the coming weeks to see if they can allow people to safely return to mass gatherings at sports arenas, nightclubs and concerts.

People attending a range of events, including conferences and soccer’s FA Cup, will need to be tested both before and after. The trials will also gather evidence on how ventilation and different approaches to social distancing could enable large events to go ahead.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to set out more details about the coronavirus passports on Monday.

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