School principals asked not to ‘jump the gun’ by taking contact tracing into their own hands if pupil tests positive for Covid-19

Public health specialists have asked school principals not to “jump the gun” by taking contact tracing and removal of children into their own hands if a pupil tests positive for Covid-19.

r Abigail Collins, HSE public health specialist, said they should wait until a public health team arrives to do a risk assessment.

She was speaking after several schools revealed this week that they had trouble getting through to a special helpline for principals to notify public health staff of a positive case. There were also complaints that some schools faced long delays before public health staff visited to assess the risk to pupils.

Speaking at a HSE briefing today she said because of the incubation period for Covid-19 the assessment could take place within four to seven days.

“It allows time for people to do the risk assessment process in a calm and orderly way. That has always been our advice,” she added.

She said the infected child would not be at school once they test positive and close contacts are “well children” with “no symptoms.”

Asymptomatic children are at very low risk of spreading the virus, she added.

The spread of Covid-19 from a well child with no symptoms and with mitigation measures in place is highly limited.

School principals have called for the helpline to operate 24 hours.

However, she said it has always operated from 8am to 4.30 Monday to Friday and 10am to 4.30pm at weekends.

It is not a requirement for them to ring the principals’ helpline if there is a case because public health staff are already notified through the contact management process.

“The line was set up for whether they had queries around cases or they had not heard from us.”

Positive cases have been found in 1,011 primary schools and early education settings with cases in 632 secondary schools since the beginning of this term.

Dr Colm Henry said that National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) will meet next week to assess the impact of the Delta variant and other issues to decide if the time spent restricting movement by school children who are close contacts should be reduced from ten days.

Niamh O Beirne, head of testing and tracing at the HSE said the positivity rate among children under fourteen, who are being tested in HSE centres from all settings, including school and home, is 6pc and this has fallen from 13pc as schools reopened.

The volume of children under 14 coming forward for testing is three times that of any other age group, she added.

Some 32,000 have been tested compared to 11,000 in 15 to 24 year olds.

“There has been a surge in testing for the younger age group.”

It will be next week before figures are available to show how many close contacts are testing positive.

When primary schools and childcare settings are combined one Covid-19 positive child has an average of ten close contacts. It is probably lower in primary schools.

A child who tests positive in secondary school has an average of three to four contacts.

Dr Henry said it is not yet clear if advice will be given, as restrictions are removed next month, on whether secondary school students could no longer wear face masks.

He said 64pc of the 12 to 17 year age group are already vaccinated. It will be a matter for Nphet to consider.

Positivity in childcare and other school settings that were open over the summer did not change compared to the Spring and that was due to mitigation measures in place, said Dr Collins.

It appears that transmission in schools is similar to what was seen before the summer holidays.


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