Managing Covid Controls in Paris

The Hôtel-Dieu, on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris.

My backpack became a little lighter this week. I no longer have to carry around my passport and my American vaccination card. I obtained a passe sanitaire, a French health pass, whose QR code on my phone shows that I’ve been fully vaccinated. This will come in handy, especially since everyone will soon need to show their vaccination status to enter restaurants and take long-distance trains.

While I have not encountered any problem in Paris when showing the vaccination card I received when I was vaccinated in New York, I still felt it would be more efficient to try to use the French system, since I’m here for a while. I had heard that it might be possible to use your American vaccination card to obtain a QR code that you could scan into the French Covid-tracking app, Tous Anti Covid. I asked at a pharmacy in my neighborhood if this could be done, but was told, “pas encore,” since the government had not yet given the go-ahead for pharmacists to create a QR code based on one’s American vaccination status. Then I learned from a site dedicated to helping Americans find their way in France that the Hôtel-Dieu, on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement of Paris on the parvis of Notre-Dame, had dedicated a room to doing just that. So off I went.

France and several other countries in the Eurozone are making an effort to bolster tourism during these uneasy pandemic times. American tourists are arriving, and I’ve heard a smattering of American accents here and there, such as at the Louvre. The streets aren’t swarming with tourists as in other summers, but that’s to be expected since Covid isn’t going away anytime soon. Still, things seem almost normal. There’s even been the usual round of angry chanting protestors on weekends – what is France without protests? – which might presage an anti-Macron movement like the infamous “gilets jaunes,” or yellow vests, of a couple of years ago, or might indicate a general unhappiness about having to comply with health measures on behalf of others. Maybe both.

And while demonstrators gathered in cities around the country last weekend to protest both the passe sanitaire and the possibility that vaccinations will become mandatory, the majority of the French are okay with the health pass, and also with being vaccinated (and at this moment, 64% of the French are at least partially vaccinated). Really, who doesn’t want the pandemic to end? A sizable minority, to judge by television news shows that are hungry to stir things up during the slow summer news season. This too seemed like France being itself.

Despite protests about liberty and personal freedom, despite whatever nonsense is being propagated about the safety and side-effects of the vaccine and despite the alarmist stories about the difficulty that restaurateurs may have in ensuring the their clients show their health pass, the passe sanitaire will likely become part of daily life for the time being. The French tend to become resigned to change once the possibility of it has become a reality. They resist change with a passion, but they’ll deal with it once it’s passed into law, as long as they can continue to complain about it. Outrage, like change, is both inevitable and constant.

Notre-Dame is under restoration; the Hôtel-Dieu is just to the left of it.

I’m all for the passe sanitaire, especially if it makes getting around easier. But I couldn’t find any official reason behind the French government’s suddenly deciding to allow Hôtel-Dieu to offer QR codes to Americans who show their vaccination cards. Information on government sites (French or not) is generally confusing, often out-of-date and usually contradictory. I’ve learned in France not to question why things are done, especially if something can help you in some way. I was grateful for this opportunity to make life a tad simpler.

As expected, the manner in which the whole procedure unrolled at the Hôtel-Dieu was a bit unorganized. This QR code process just began a few days ago, so they were figuring out the best way to get Americans in and out with a minimum of fuss. There were slight glitches. First, the guard at the entrance sent me the wrong way (he thought I was looking to be vaccinated). Then he told me to turn right after the lobby and to enter the little office that had been set up for providing QR codes. One of the workers there scolded me for entering and said in the aggravated, dismissive tone that’s customary among French functionaries, that I needed to wait in the lobby, behind me. It was then I saw that about 10 other hopeful Americans sitting patiently on a stone bench built into the lobby wall. So I took my seat among them.

The Hôtel-Dieu is apparently the oldest continuously operating hospital in the world. It was founded in 651 and rebuilt several times, the latest between 1867 and 1878, when the Baron Haussmann was remaking Paris. It looks quite lived in. It doesn’t quite resemble a hospital as much as the oversized administration building of some fantasy epic in an alternate reality. If it weren’t for the occasional sight of white-coated doctors strolling through the hall, you could have been in any imposing ages-old government building. In a way, it felt as if we were waiting to get our papers stamped so we could proceed on our pilgrimage. Which kind of made sense. We were all on a quest for enlightenment.

As I waited, one of the people handling the QR code process taped up on the wall by the stone bench a printout that said, “QR CODE COVID.” It was the first sign that this was official. The ad hoc sign didn’t indicate that this was the waiting area, or that you’d need your passport, your vaccination card and the Tous Anti Covid app installed. Still, it was something. Every few minutes, a few more Americans arrived, probably like me tired of carrying their passports and vaccination cards with them and hoping to get their QR codes, and took their place on the stone bench. I was called in after about a half-hour of waiting.

Once inside, it took about five minutes. A young woman examined my passport, and then entered onto a French government health site my CDC vaccination information (lot numbers, dates when the shots were administered). For some reason – likely a demand by French health authorities – she also asked which arm had received the shot and whether I’d had any secondary effects (answers: left arm, and none). In any event, I was soon given sheets of paper that showed the QR code and the information entered into the French health system. When I scanned the code into the app, it reacted with a shower of balloons, a charming way to celebrate my activating the passe sanitaire.

I felt as if I’d somehow succeeded in navigating the French bureaucracy. But in these uncertain times, it was also a satisfying victory during life under Covid.

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