Was scrapping contact tracing in schools a mistake?
The decision by a primary school in Wexford to send pupils home due to high numbers of Covid-19 cases puts the new policy of no contact tracing in infected classrooms in the spotlight.
The growing number of positive cases across all ages of the population has raised questions about the policy of schools, which the Health Service Executive says are low-risk settings for transmission.
When does the increasing number of cases in a classroom constitute a classroom outbreak that requires testing of all students to determine if the virus is spreading in a classroom?
And if an entire class is considered to be in close contact with an infected student, does that mean that many healthy children have to stay home and miss school for an extended period?
You could hear the frustration in the voice of Vicky Barron, the headmistress of CBS Primary School in Wexford, as she spoke about the challenge of dealing with an increasing number of cases.
A first case was detected in a classroom on October 8 followed by a few others over the following days. It was not until October 12 that the HSE sent the whole class to be tested as close contacts.
On Sunday, the school board decided to send all students home for remote learning until next month. The school now has 34 cases.
‘The HSE say it’s not a school epidemic, but so what is it? He did not come out of the walls. Someone brought it into the room,” Barron told RTÉ Radio.
As of September 27, routine contact tracing no longer takes place for close contacts between children aged 12 and under in primary schools and nurseries.
This is because large numbers of healthy children were forced to stay home for up to 17 days when public health officials saw no risk of transmission from asymptomatic children.
But the increase in the number of cases in all age groups means that more and more cases are inevitably appearing in schools.
“The more testing and contact tracing you do, the less likely you are to have transmission,” said Professor Kingston Mills, an immunologist at Trinity College Dublin.
“But, on the other hand, some people think there is not a lot of transmission in schools. Obviously, it goes against that if there are such a large number of cases in a school. »
Niamh O’Beirne, head of testing and tracing at the HSE, said the National Public Health Emergency Team would look at the data, but the policy needed to balance the impact of excluding children from school .
At Wexford School, parents had, like many others, come to their own defense by carrying out antigen tests at home and alerting the school to the most detected cases.
Head teachers were intrigued by the change last month when they went from managing dozens of close contacts and potential asymptomatic cases among pupils to none almost overnight.
“It just seemed like a very sudden move with no other mitigating measures like antigen tests,” said Simon Lewis, headmaster of Educate Together Primary School in Carlow Town.
“I know there always has to be a balance, but if you remove something there is a consequence and you will miss cases, no matter how small. Looks like it backfired on us.