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Warning over schools ‘jumping the gun’ on Covid cases

‘Wait for public health teams’ – HSE urges


Dr Abigail Collins of the HSE.

Dr Abigail Collins of the HSE.

Dr Abigail Collins of the HSE.

School principals have been warned not to jump the gun and start deciding which child is a close contact of a Covid case.

Children do not need to be removed immediately from school if another pupil tests positive for Covid-19, a HSE expert say. They can attend class for several days until public health teams arrive to assess their risk, according to Dr Abigail Collins.

Dr Collins, the HSE lead for schools, said the visit by public health teams could happen within four to seven days. They would then decide which child was a close contact, as well as who needed to be tested and stay at home.

As long as the infected child is at home, other pupils have no symptoms and mitigation measures are in place, the other children can continue to attend school.

Dr Collins was speaking after a week of confusion and panic as children tested positive for the virus in 1,011 primary schools and early education settings, as well as in 632 secondary schools.

It has led to a surge in demand for testing and pressure on HSE public health teams.

The demand was highest among the under-14s, although the number of youngsters testing positive has fallen from 13pc to 6pc since the beginning of term.

Several schools revealed this week that they had trouble getting through to a special HSE helpline for principals to notify public health staff of a positive case.

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One of the criticisms is that the HSE helpline operates until only 4.30pm, so there have been cases of principals contacting parents late at night to warn them not to send in their child.

There were also complaints that some schools faced long delays before public health staff visited to assess the risk to pupils. Dr Collins said people should not be panicking. As the incubation period for Covid-19 is up to 14 days, 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 said.

Once the infected pupil in the class is at home, and other classmates have no symptoms, they should be considered “well children”.

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

It is unclear how many children deemed to be close contacts are restricting their movements for up to 10 days, but it may be around 12,000.

The volume of children under 14 coming forward for testing is three times that of any other age group, said Dr Collins – 32,000 have been tested, compared with 11,000 in the 15 to 24-year-old group.

When primary schools and childcare settings are combined, one Covid-19 positive child has an average of 10 close contacts. A child who tests positive in secondary school has an average of three to four contacts.

Chief Clinical Officer Dr Colm Henry said it was not yet clear whether advice would be given on whether secondary school students could stop wearing face masks as further restrictions are eased next month.

He said 64pc of the 12 to 17-year-old age group were already vaccinated. There are now 89pc of the over-16s fully vaccinated.

It comes as 1,292 more cases of the virus were reported yesterday. The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital is down to 331, compared to 343 a week ago. There are 54 in intensive care, a reduction from 59 the same day last week.

Meanwhile, the HSE said women at any stage of pregnancy were now being offered a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. Dr Peter McKenna, head of the National Women & Infants Health Programme, said evidence showed the vaccines were safe.

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