PARIS — The prayer meeting at an evangelical church in Mulhouse, a small city in eastern France near the border with Germany, was just the latest in a series of such annual gatherings going back a generation.But this year’s meeting — in the words of a regional health official — was “a kind of atomic bomb that went off in the town in late February that we didn’t see.” Someone in the crowd of 2,500 had the novel coronavirus, kicking off what soon became one of Europe’s largest regional clusters of infections, which then quickly spread across the country and eventually overseas.As of Wednesday, France reported 56,989 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, and the country’s death toll is the fourth highest in the world at 4,032, including 509 within the last day And the actual number of fatalities may be higher, because public health authorities were initially not including deaths that occurred outside hospitals in the tally.As the government desperately tries to contain further spread of the virus with an extended nationwide lockdown and expanded testing, many are asking how France — a country with one of the most vaunted and well-funded public health systems in the world —


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