MARSEILLE: From the intensive care ward in France where he is spending the holidays, COVID-19 patient David Daniel Sebbagh said he has one overriding regret: that he didn't get vaccinated.
"The vaccine, it's not a danger," the 52-year-old said as he lay in a Marseille hospital.
"It's choosing life."
The ICU's chief doctor, Dr. Julien Carvelli, is trying to keep his team motivated as they spend another Christmas tending to patients on breathing machines, periodically flipping them back to front, front to back.
The staff is tired, the omicron variant is bearing down, and the unit's beds are filling fast.
"We're afraid we won't have enough space," Carvelli said.
Marseille's La Timone Hospital, one of France's biggest hospitals, has weathered wave after wave of COVID-19.
On Christmas Eve, medical personnel decorated a fir tree in the corridor and seized a moment for a communal meal in their scrubs, trying to maintain a semblance of holiday spirit in between rounds.
The hospital allows families to visit gravely ill loved ones in the ICU, as long as they're careful.
Amelie Khayat has paid daily visits to her husband, Ludo, 41, who spent 24 days in a coma and on a breathing machine.
The couple touched heads as she sat on his bed.
Now strong enough to stand, he stood to give her a farewell hug.
In a nearby room, a 40-year-old patient lay unconscious near death, with her young son's winter hat placed on her belly.
In another, a relative had left a Christian icon propped on a patient's tray.
Down the hall, Katy Zalinian waited anxiously to visit her cousin.
She later entered his room wearing full protective gear and touched her hand lovingly to his leg.
While some 90% of French adults are vaccinated against the coronavirus and some 40% have received a booster shot, most of the COVID-19 patients in La Timone's ICU are unvaccinated.
"I regret it, a lot, a lot, a lot," patient Sebbagh said.
"I let myself get caught up in things. I thought that the vaccine was not necessarily something good."
He recalled that when his COVID-19 symptoms were at their worst, "I didn't know where I was going. Nothing was clear in my head. I waited for hours and I was in pain."
Sebbagh's wife, Esther, described her terror: "Our life was shattered this week. I believed I would lose him."
He's still testing positive for the virus and says that all that matters now is trying to recover.
"If I had been vaccinated, I wouldn't have been in such a level of intensive care," he said.
"The vaccine is not a danger but a possibility to escape, to avoid something more serious."
France now is seeing its highest daily infection rates of the pandemic as the omicron variant races around the country. Carvelli, the ICU chief in Marseille, worries hospitals could soon be "overwhelmed."
"We're already in a situation of tension, with very few available spaces," he said.
"We're sick of this. We're always focused on doing our jobs the best way possible, but the more this goes on, the more tired people get."
Two things are making this Christmas especially challenging, Carvelli said.
More and more staff members are testing positive in the current omicron surge and therefore unavailable to work.
And some colleagues are leaving the profession altogether because of the strain.
"We still try to have little special moments during the workday, or night, to get together to celebrate," he said.
Paris' Notre Dame rector offers hope to virus-hit worshipers
Worshipers in face masks filed into Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois Church across from the Louvre Museum on Friday for Christmas Eve Mass, and were greeted by the rector of the closed Notre Dame Cathedral.
It was the second year that holiday service are being held under the shadow of the coronavirus.
Everyone was masked and members of the congregation sprayed people's hands with disinfectant as they entered.
Children in the choir sang while masked and spaced out across the podium.
They had to produce negative coronavirus tests to participate.
"We have very strict rules in place," said Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, who is rector of Notre Dame, which has been closed since a devastating fire nearly three years ago.
"The communion wafer is placed into worshipers' hands and there is no kiss of peace. There is no contact whatsoever."
Chauvet has been leading the congregation at Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois while the cathedral is being repaired.
In the lead-up to Christmas, France has recorded its highest-yet number of daily coronavirus infections while hospitalizations for COVID-19 have been rising.
But the government has held off on imposing curfews, closures or other restrictions for the festivities.
Maria Valdes, a dual Mexican-French citizen at Mass, said she was resigned to the restrictions of the pandemic.
She has gotten used to the ever-changing rules and regulations in her private and public life.
"As far am I'm concerned, we have to live because this is a virus that isn't just going to go away," Valdes said.
"Respect the rules, but we have to live."
Chauvet said before celebrating the Mass that much as the fire ravaged Notre Dame, the pandemic has devastated communities, whole towns and families.
The lockdowns and isolation have left people disoriented, tired and emotionally exhausted, he said.
"I meet with people who wonder if they are going to manage to get out of this situation, people who are sometimes losing hope," he said.
"Christmas is hope," Chauvet added.
"We have to continue to fight, to reach the point where we can try to see the light at the end of the tunnel."
In September, the famed medieval cathedral was finally deemed stable and secure enough to start reconstruction from the blaze in April 2019 that tore through its roof and toppled its spire.
Work on the spire started a few days ago and authorities hope to have Notre Dame open to visitors and religious services in 2024, the year Paris hosts the Olympics.
Carpenters, scaffolding experts, professional climbers, organ mechanics and others are taking part the effort, which included special temporary structures to secure the iconic towers, vaults and walls of the huge roofless structure, and a special "umbrella" to protect it from the weather.
"It's not simple," Chauvet said of the work.
But, he said, like people in his congregation will recover from the pandemic, the cathedral will recover its past glory.
"The spire will be the same, the roof will be the same," he said.
"It's strange for the patients, too, who are deprived of Christmas."