STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - Medical workers dressed head-to-toe in protective gear emerge from Strasbourg university hospital, push a coronavirus patient on a wheeled stretcher across the parking lot, load the patient into a helicopter, then retreat as the aircraft lifts off.
This has become a daily ritual in eastern France as intensive care units there have been unable to cope with the numbers of critically-ill cases and have instead been transferring patients to nearby Germany, Switzerland and Luxembourg.
As one patient on Tuesday was loaded onto a red-and-yellow helicopter of the French Civil Security agency, a helicopter crewman watched over, dressed in blue surgical scrubs, topped with an orange aviation helmet.
The area in eastern France around the city of Strasbourg has seen one of the biggest coronavirus clusters in France. Local doctors have warned that the healthcare system is at breaking point.
The so-called air bridge to fly coronavirus patients out of eastern France began at the weekend and has so far involved around 10 helicopters from France, Germany and Luxembourg.
One flight delivered a patient from a clinic in France's eastern Alsace region to a military hospital in Ulm, southern Germany. "If everything goes well he will survive," said German Army colonel and doctor Matthias Helm.
Another flight brought a 64-year-old patient from Colmar in France's eastern Alsace region to Germany's Mannheim hospital.
"Our French colleagues are currently under excessive strain", said Mannheim senior intensive care doctor Thomas Kirschning.
"Currently we have the advantage that we still have capacity and can prepare ourselves for a potential wave of cases. "
France reported a cumulative 1,100 coronavirus deaths on Tuesday with 22,300 infected people.
The epidemic in eastern France led the French army to set up a field hospital with 30 intensive care beds. The field hospital admitted its first patient on Tuesday.
(Reporting by Christian Hartmann; additional reporting by Matthieu Protard and Tangui Salaun; Editing by Christian Lowe)
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