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Explainer: Why health officials aren't naming the Glasnevin school at the centre of the Covid-19 outbreak

Health chiefs have come in for criticism online for the decision – here’s the thinking behind it.

File photo.
File photo.
Image: Shutterstock/Lissandra Melo

TODAY MARKS THE first day in a two-week closing period for a Dublin school after one of its pupils was confirmed as the first case of Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland.

The child is from Scoil Chaitríona in Glasnevin, Dublin 9. He is currently receiving medical treatment. 

The Department of Health said yesterday that the case involved a male patient in “the east of the country” who had recently returned from northern Italy, which has seen a spread of the virus in recent weeks.

Staff and pupils at the school are being told to limit their social interactions for 14 days after the department’s contact tracing exercise concluded that closing the school was required in order to prevent the potential spread of the virus.

Health authorities have refused to publicly name the school, describing it only as a “school in the east of the country”.

False rumours regarding other schools allegedly affected by coronavirus spread on social media yesterday, causing confusion for many parents and students. 

The name and location of the school at the centre of the case was also widely shared online, however, with politicians and local sports clubs also commenting on the closure. 

Source: TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The decision not to name the institution has been the focus of intense criticism, scrutiny and debate, but why was it taken?

At a briefing last night the Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Health, Dr Tony Holohan, outlined that authorities followed this course of action to assure members of the public who might have symptoms that their confidentiality would be protected if they came forward.

“It’s in order to protect something, as opposed to hide something. There’s something here that we’re protecting, the identity of an individual, to create an environment in which members of the public can feel free to report symptoms – free that when they report those symptoms that they’re not going to be the subject of unwanted scrutiny,” he explained.

If they don’t feel that trust they’re simply not going to come forward and report.
If they don’t come forward and report then we have no chance. It’s as simple as that.

The department says the strategy is in line with guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

A WHO document provided to TheJournal.ie by the department outlines that patient privacy is a crucial consideration when communicating with the public during any outbreak. 

The document reads:

The key is to balance the rights of the individual against information directly pertinent to the public good and the public’s need and desire for reliable information.
Announcing the limits of transparency publicly, and explaining why those limits are being set, is usually well tolerated provided the limits are justified.

Dr Holohan addressed the controversy over the decision not to name the school via Twitter this morning, reiterating that patients deserve to have their privacy protected and without trust people will not come forward.

“Containment strategy depends on this trust. We have nothing to hide but we have something to protect,” he wrote. 

The message quoted a thread from Dr Anthony O’Connor which outlined that confidentiality and privacy are “mission-critical principles” of public health and contact tracing, which is the process of identifying people who may have come in contact with an infected person.

“The public health authorities are not stupid. Far from it. They know this information was getting out into the public domain in five seconds,” O’Connor wrote.

But in not being the ones to do so they’ve imparted an important lesson that they’re not going to breach the trust of someone who might come forward as being affected, like this child did to his eternal credit, so others could be protected.

Holohan again addressed the issue on Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio One today, saying that authorities would continue to take this approach in the future if there are other cases.

He also advised people not necessarily to trust information they see on social media, instead urging them to visit the HSE’s website to find the information they need about the virus.

“I’ve seen some things on social media where people have expressed concern about driving through a specific area as a result of the information that’s on social media. These concerns have no basis in fact whatsoever,” he said.

Covid-19

The most extensive study yet carried out on the novel coronavirus, which causes the Covid-19 illness, found that it was benign in 80.9% of cases, “serious” in 13.8% and “critical” in 4.7%. 

The virus is spread through close contact with an infected person’s body fluids, such as droplets from coughing or sneezing, or by touching surfaces that an infected person has coughed or sneezed on.

Part of the reason Covid-19 has been declared a public health emergency is due to the speed at which it has spread compared to other coronaviruses (like Sars and Mers) and the fact that there’s a lot about the virus that’s still unknown.

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Ceimin Burke

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