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The HSE's National Lead for Testing and Tracing Niamh O’Beirne. Leon Farrell
test and trace

Close-contact positivity something 'we really need to watch' as schools return

The so-called UK variant now accounts for about 92% of cases in this country.

LAST UPDATE | 26 Feb 2021

THE COVID-19 POSITIVITY rate among close contacts has increased significantly in the last number of months as the B117 variant has become more dominant in this country. 

The HSE has said there is a “significant difference” in close-contact positivity as the so-called UK variant now accounts for 92% of cases in this country. 

Speaking on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne this morning, the HSE’s Head of Test & Trace Niamh O’Beirne outlined the change over the past couple of months. 

“In December if you were a close contact around 12% of people would test positive, now that’s 27% and even higher again if you’re in the same household at 35%. So that’s moved quite a lot in that period of time. And we expected that as a result of a more transmissible variant,” she said. 

O’Beirne said this includes higher levels of positivity in settings where children are and among young age groups. She said this is a factor “we really need to watch”. 

She said that the HSE will be “activity working” with schools as children return to classes. 

There’s a lot of support for the schools returning from a from a public health and test and tracing perspective, so we would be very actively working with the schools. Where there is any case identified we would contact the parent first to let them know the child is positive and they usually contact the school themselves but then we will also contact school.

Speaking later to RTÉ’s News at One, virologist and NPHET member Dr Cillian de Gascun said that health officials here were keeping an eye on the B.1.525 variant of the virus which has now been identified in Ireland. Nigeria has been suggested as the country of origin for this strain. 

“In contrast to the likes of the variants that have been reported in the UK and South Africa, this one hasn’t yet become dominant in Nigeria for example,” he said.

“In actual fact if you look at the data we have coming out of Nigeria, it’s being out-competed for want of a better phrase by the B117, which is the variant that was reported in the UK.”

He said that efforts were being made to do targeted sequencing on testing in people who have returned from various countries into Ireland. Dr de Gascun said this sequencing is done on around 13-15% of tests at this stage and it would be important to ensure such efforts are sustainable in future. 

‘Higher levels of movement’

Under the government’s plan, junior infants, senior infants, first class and second class – including so-called multi-grade classes at these levels – will return next Monday, 1 March.

Leaving Certificate students will also return next Monday, while schools for children with special needs will re-open fully on the same day.

O’Beirne says the HSE set up a group in November which has 50 inspectors and HSE staff to support schools and that public health doctors can make assessments and refer for testing if required. 

Speaking at yesterday’s HSE briefing, CEO Paul Reid expressed some concern about “higher levels of movement in society”. 

“47.5% of the new cases over the past few weeks were among the age groups of 19 to 34, almost 21% cases in the past two weeks were among children in the 0-18 category,” he said.  

Reid added that the average number close contacts of a confirmed case has increased slightly in the past week and now stands at 3.3. 

“The highest number of contacts we recorded last week was from one person who had 38 close contacts,” Reid said. 

With reporting from Sean Murray

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