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CMO and Deputy CMO lay out the figures behind Covid-19 testing in schools

Close contact testing in schools has yielded a positivity rate of 2.8%.

This evening's Department of Health briefing.
This evening's Department of Health briefing.

CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER Dr Tony Holohan has reiterated that health officials do not believe that Covid-19 is being accelerated by the attendance of children at school.

Speaking this evening, Holohan said that he “doesn’t agree” with an assertion from the Fórsa trade union that schools should remain closed after next week’s mid-term break.

Fórsa represents more than 15,000 non-teaching staff in the education sector and said today schools are not being adequately informed about confirmed Covid-19 cases among students. 

Asked about the suggestion that they remain closed, Holohan said “the data doesn’t agree” that Covid-19 transmission is being amplified by schools. 

“The data in respect of school-aged children, we think, doesn’t cause us to believe that we are experiencing accelerated transmission caused by people’s attendance in school,” Holohan said. 

What we’ve seen so far in terms of transmission data gives us reassurance in that regard. We’ll continue to monitor that situation, and if anything were to change in relation that we would obviously report on that. 

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Heather Burns provided further details about testing and positivity rates in Irish schools, which she says “reflects the current international position that schools are not key drivers of Covid-19 in the community”. 

Burns said that, to date, there has been testing of close contacts across 519 schools and childcare facilities, taking in a total of 12,658 adults and children.

From that testing, 352 additional cases have been detected above the initial case, leading to a positivity rate among close contacts in schools of 2.8%. Burns said this is compared to the national positivity rate which is 7.2%. 

011 Health briefing Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr. Heather Burns. Source: Sasko Lazarov

Last week, the Department of Education cited similar figures relating to positivity rates in schools as evidence for schools remaining open under Level 5 restrictions. 

“The data supports the position that schools are not high-risk environments for Covid-19,” Burns said. 

Where our public health doctors, who are doing such excellent work on the ground to try and determine chains of transmission, where they have found that there have been cases perhaps in children or adults who have become symptomatic in school, quite often what they found is that they have had exposures in the community. So in their own household or in another social setting. 

“Public health will ask detailed questions and they often might find out that perhaps that child has a parent who’s become a confirmed case of Covid, or a sibling, or has been in a social setting where there have been confirmed cases.”

Burns also said schools are “relatively controlled environments” where public health measures can be implemented but that, as with workplaces, people shouldn’t attend if they are displaying Covid-19 symptoms. 

The deputy CMO added that the increased restrictions being brought in will also reduce the risk of a child or adult bringing Covid-19 into schools. 

“The Irish experience is reflecting the international position that schools are not key drivers of Covid transmission in the community. And in fact, what we see is community transmission is reflected in the schools, so the more we can keep it down in the community the more we can protect the school environment,” she said.

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School closure

Meanwhile, a Co Kerry secondary school which closed following an increase in Covid-19 cases has reportedly been ordered to reopen by the Department of Education and Skills.

A letter issued by the principal of Tarbert Comprehensive School, Richard Prendiville, informed parents and pupils that the school will re-open tomorrow following instructions from the department to do so.

The school remained closed today as a health precaution, a decision Prendiville said was made “based on the autonomy granted to the school to make such decisions”.

Prendiville also claimed in the letter that the department had instructed the school not to provide materials for students to study from home if they wished to remain out of class for fear of infection.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson said that the Department would not comment on individual cases, but that current advice to all principals is to follow public health advice.

The spokesperson added that when a confirmed case arises in a school, a local public health team will carry out a risk assessment and the Department of Health will advise the school about what to do.

With reporting from Stephen McDermott.

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Rónán Duffy

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