France takes careful vaccine approach to counter skepticism

(AP) — While governments across Europe kicked off their virus vaccination plans this weekend with fanfare, France took a more low-key approach because of widespread skepticism among it citizens around the vaccines.

After the first shots were injected Sunday into the arm of 78-year-old Mauricette, a woman in a long-term care facility near Paris, President Emmanuel Macron appealed to his compatriots: “Let’s have trust in our researchers and doctors. We are the nation of the Enlightenment and of (vaccine pioneer Louis) Pasteur. Reason and science should guide us.”

Yet many of his compatriots worry. They remember French health scandals in recent decades, including those involving mismanaged vaccines. They fear that the coronavirus vaccines were developed too quickly, are aimed at bringing profit to big pharmaceutical companies, or risk long-term side effects that the world will only discover years from now.

France has lost more lives to the virus than most countries, and its economy — one of the world’s biggest — has been deeply crippled by two virus lockdowns. Doctors hope that French vaccine hesitancy will fade as more people get vaccinated.

Dr. Jean-Jacques Monsuez, a 65-year-old cardiologist at a nursing home northeast of Paris, was France’s second vaccine recipient Sunday. After he and several elderly patients were injected, he said, “they are vaccinated, we are vaccinated, we are all in the same boat. And the boat cannot sink.

“And around the boat there is a country that cannot sink.”

Politicians on France’s far right and far left have fueled vaccine concerns, but polls commissioned by the national health agency suggest that the skepticism comes from some moderate voters too.

Justine Lardon walks with a crutch after suffering severe side effects from a hepatitis B vaccine in 2010, and is hesitating over whether to get vaccinated against the virus. She told regional newspaper Le Progres that she supports vaccination, but is concerned that doctors don’t pay enough attention to individual health issues.

“If (the vaccine) can wipe out the epidemic, that’s really great, but I don’t want a vaccine that is a time bomb,” she is quoted as saying.

The French government has been cautious in its messaging, keen to ensure that it’s not seen as forcing vaccination on the public. Instead, authorities are counting on doctors to convince patients that the vaccine is in their, and the country’s, best interests.

Macron reiterated Sunday that the vaccine will be free of charge — and not obligatory.

France’s first vaccination wasn’t broadcast on live television as it was elsewhere, and no government ministers attended. No top officials have said they’re getting the vaccine yet, instead insisting it should go to the most vulnerable first.

In a country with a large elderly population, including many with cognitive impairments, the government came under pressure from concerned families to devise extensive guidance for collecting consent from nursing home patients before vaccinating them.

Many French people, however, are eager to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

“I’m very touched,” Mauricette said when told she was the first in France to get the vaccine. “You’re a star,” said the medic who administered it, after gently folding Mauricette’s sleeve down over the small bandage on her upper arm.

“We didn’t need to convince her. She said ‘yes, I’m ready for anything to avoid getting this disease,’” said Dr. Samir Tine, head of geriatric services at her facility in Sevran northeast of Paris.

“It’s an important day,” Tine said. “We are very eager to have a new weapon at our disposition, and we are very eager to rediscover our normal lives.”

France has reported the highest number of virus infections in Western Europe and among the highest death tolls, at 62,573 lives lost. Nearly a third died in nursing homes, so the government decided to give the vaccine to the elderly first, as well as some at-risk medical workers.

Noting that France’s infections are rising again in some regions, particularly among older people in rural areas, Health Minister Olivier Veran warned in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche newspaper published Sunday that pressure on hospitals could start growing again, and said the government isn’t ruling out a third lockdown.