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France tackles heat emergency

Some patients are being treated in hospital corridors in Paris.

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PARIS, France (CNN) -- French authorities have announced a plan of action after officials revealed an estimated 3,000 people have died of heat-related causes in the past two weeks.

Government officials, including Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei, held an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss ways of dealing with what Mattei has described as a "veritable epidemic" of deaths.

A "Plan Blanc" or "White Plan" has been put into action, with doctors and nurses being recalled from leave, some morgue workers called out of retirement, and further 1,000 hospital beds being made available from Friday.

The plan also calls for the nation's hospitals to appoint a "crisis group" to ensure that resources are available to care for the victims.

Emergency-room doctors criticized the French government for not acting quickly enough to deal with the crisis, which is now in its second week. Many of the ministers, including Raffarin, had been on vacation.

"Over the last three or four days, it's been quite difficult," one doctor said. "But we're very pleased there is a structure now."

At Hopital Avicenne near Paris, a nurse complained that she was not able to care properly for the sick because the hospital has no air conditioning and no ice.

"We really do feel quite desperate," said Katia Guiermet, an emergency services nurse. "We don't feel incompetent, but it's really difficult for people suffering from heat stroke when you don't have any ice.

"It's very difficult to tell people who brought their grandmothers to hospital to tell them they had died, and of course, people couldn't understand because they often feel the hospital can sort all problems out. But that hasn't been the case."

She said the medical team had worked eight days without respite and was exhausted.

French officials blame the high death toll in part on the length of the heat wave and the fact that Parisian buildings typically lack air conditioning.

General Funeral Services, which has approximately 25 percent of the funeral home business in France, reported to the Health Ministry that it had handled 3,230 deaths across the country in the previous week, a number 37 percent above the number of deaths for the same week a year ago.

In a written statement, the French Health Ministry said, "Drawing on all the data, and taking account of extrapolations to apply to the whole of France, the number of the deaths tied directly or indirectly to heat during this period can be estimated at around 3,000 for the whole of France.

"It is not possible for the moment to evaluate how much of this higher mortality rate is associated with the heat wave, because of the usual element of unpredictability in such situations."

But the head of the doctors' emergency association, Patrick Pelloux, criticized the estimate as low. He said emergency physicians estimated that between 1,000 and 2,000 people had died in the Paris region alone.

Saint-Antoine Hopital in Paris, which has no air conditioning, was packed with patients -- many of them elderly, and many of them in beds pushed into hallways.

The head of funeral services for Paris said the city's morgues were full. The French television network TF1 aired video of air-conditioned tents that had been erected to hold the bodies of the dead.

French officials are blaming the duration of the heat wave for the deaths.

Between August 3 and August 13, temperatures regularly exceeded 40 C (104 F), TF1 reported. Typically, the temperature in August in Paris is around 23 C (75 F).

August is typically the month the French take vacation. Many health workers have been called back. Others, particularly those who have worked in the country's morgues, are being called out of retirement to help deal with the flood of dead bodies.

Doctors said typically about 30 people a day die in the Paris area. This year, that number has climbed to more than 180 a day.

Weather forecasts predict cooler temperatures in Paris for the next couple of days, with the high Saturday perhaps holding in the mid-20s C (mid-70s F).

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