With daily Covid-19 case figures soaring and restrictions once again being imposed on the hospitality sector, questions are being asked about risk mitigation in schools.
When are they rolling out antigen testing in primary schools?
The HSE is working on the detail, based on recently published guidance from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
Then the HSE, the Department of Health and the Department of Education have to agree the most effective means of implementing the guidance.
Last week, Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and Taoiseach Micheál Martin said it would be introduced before Christmas, but schools will be very disappointed if they don’t see it very soon.
How is it likely to work here?
It will not involve rapid antigen tests being rolled out across the primary school system.
Their use will be confined to close contacts in specific situations, which will be outlined in the HSE guidance
What did the ECDC suggest?
The ECDC said the presence of effective mitigation measures that lower the risk can be taken into account when deciding on a contact tracing policy for schools.
Depending on the degree of prevention measures, vaccination and testing being implemented in schools, it suggests approaches to antigen testing could be:
:: Test only the closest contacts of a confirmed case;
:: If two or more cases (including the index case) in a class are found, test the entire class;
:: If additional cases are found in a class, consider quarantining the entire class.
Irish public health chiefs insist that primary schools are low-risk environments. While teachers may be vaccinated, primary pupils are not and there is no longer any routine Covid testing conducted in primary schools.
How will it differ from the previous system of contact tracing and testing?
Under that system, regardless of symptoms, a student who was a close contact of a confirmed case had to be absent from school for 10 days.
While details are awaited of exactly how close contacts will be dealt with, antigen testing could allow a child without symptoms to continue to attend school unless they get a positive result.
Practice on the use of antigen tests varies between countries. The ECDC suggests that where antigen testing can be scaled-up, ‘test-to-stay’ strategies could also be considered in an attempt to minimise school absenteeism.
In this regard, it referred to a trial in the UK where daily testing of school-based contacts was found to be a safe alternative to self-quarantine.
Obviously, if a child or staff member has symptoms, they should stay away from school.
Who will do the contact tracing?
The ECDC says it should be carried out by, or in close collaboration with, local public health authorities, who may work closely with individual schools to define the most appropriate response.
One of the questions still to be answered is who will tell the principal if a pupil has tested positive for Covid so that close contacts can be identified – the HSE or a parent?
Some parents of infected children are currently sharing such information with their schools but there is no requirement to do so.
What else needs to be sorted?
Details such as where antigen tests are to be distributed to close contacts identified in school settings.
Is Covid rampant in schools?
Since mass testing in primary schools ceased in September, we don’t have any figures for the level of infection in those settings, but there is anecdotal evidence of cases in many schools.
According to the latest data, primary-aged children have one of the highest incidences of Covid in the population.
Of a total of 54,592 cases nationally in the fortnight to November 14, 7,971 (almost 15pc) were five to 12-year-olds.
Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland