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Rules around close contacts in schools may have to change, says HSE boss

Paul Reid said today that there has been a surge in demand for testing since children returned to school.

Image: Alamy Stock Photo

THE CEO OF the HSE has said that it may be time to reconsider keeping children out of school if they are deemed a close contact of a positive Covid-19 case but have no symptoms.

Paul Reid said today that there has been a surge in demand for testing since children returned to school, with the HSE suspending walk-in testing due to the level of demand.

It is estimated that as many as 12,000 children are temporarily out of school as close contacts of someone with the virus.

Reid said on Newstalk’s On The Record today that there are “disproportionate” levels of the virus among young people.

“Over the last week or so … in the 0-18 age category, 45% of our total tests in the community came from that age group – but they’d represent just 20% of the population.”

NPHET is expected to consider a change to the rules around children isolating if they do not have symptoms when it meets this week.

Reid said the impact of keeping children out of school “where it’s probably unnecessary” may have to be reconsidered.

No vaccines have yet been approved for children under 12, but Reid said the inoculation of adults and teenagers has been a “massive success”.

Infectious disease consultant Dr Clíona Ní Cheallaigh has said that most children under the age of 12 in Ireland could test positive by spring.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s Brendan O’Connor show, Ní Cheallaigh said without mask-wearing in primary schools, the virus will continue to spread.

However, Reid refuted this on RTÉ’s This Week today, saying “that’s not what we are seeing currently”.

“We are not seeing most children being infected at all. If you look at the cases that we have had it’s a much smaller percentage than total children in school.

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“Right now, including close contacts, there’s probably about 12,000 children out of the total one million so it’s a very small percentage.”

He added that the current picture of the virus in schools is what the HSE would have projected.

“We now have 13,000 primary schools and early learning centres where we have had an outbreak and we now have 750 secondary schools,” he said.

“If you just take the case numbers for the past seven days or so 45pc of the case numbers are coming from the 0 to 18 age group and they would generally represent 20pc of the population.”

Reid’s comments were echoed by Professor Philip Nolan, who wrote on Twitter: “A lot of commentary saying that most or all schoolchildren will be infected with SARS-CoV-2 in the coming months, based on an uncritical reading of this modelling study. It is highly unlikely that the scenario modelled will happen in the real world.

“Our experience is that with basic mitigation measures in place, including symptomatic children staying home from school, infected children do not transmit the virus to this many other children in school,” he said. “The majority of infected children infect no other children in school, some transmit to one other, and a small number transmit to more than one other child. The average reproduction number in schools is less than 1, not 2 or 4.”

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