Covid-19 transmission rates at schools remains low, says HSE

Data is described as ‘reassuring’ and indicates schools are not incubators of the disease

Schools remain safe settings with very low rates of transmission of Covid-19, according to public health authorities.

On Thursday Dr Abigail Collins, a consultant in public health medicine, said the latest data is very reassuring and shows schools are in general not incubators of the disease.

New figures released by the HSE indicate a total of 599 cases of Covid-19 detected among pupils or staff in primary or secondary schools since they reopened in late August.

On foot of these cases, just over 15,000 staff and students were tested following risk assessments which identified them as a close contact.

These tests uncovered an additional 384 cases, or 2.5 per cent of all cases tested.

The HSE says this compares to a positivity rate of about 10 per cent of close contacts in the community.

The difference between positivity rates in schools versus the community is regarded as an encouraging sign that schools are not “amplifying” transmission of the virus.

A further breakdown of these figures shows positivity rates following the testing of close contacts are highest in special education schools (3.3 per cent), followed by primary schools (2.7 per cent) and secondary schools (2 per cent).

Dr Collins said this positive data from schools was reflected in national age data which shows that the proportion of children contracting the virus has remained stable since schools reopened.

While 14.5 per cent of cases were among children aged between four to 18 in August, that figure rose slightly to 14.9 per cent in September and 15.6 per cent in October.

Overall, she said out of the 300 or so students diagnosed with Covid-19 in schools, most evidence indicated that they contracted the virus in the community or within their families rather than in a school setting.

Available evidence indicated transmission of the virus within the school occurred in under 2 per cent of the country’s schools – or 70 out of about 4,000 primary and secondary schools.

While teachers’ unions have raised concerns over “inconsistencies” in the definition of what constitutes a close contact across schools, Dr Collins explained that each case is different and “soft” information gathered by public health teams can lead to different conclusions over the number of close contacts.

She said public health teams were working hard to balance what was reasonable with what was necessary in limiting the spread of the virus.

“Schools are very important places. If you designate someone a close contact you are automatically excluding them from education for two weeks and exclusion is harmful and undesirable.”

Yesterday Micheál Martin said schools will definitely open on Monday after the mid-term break, despite a vote by teachers’ unions in favour of industrial action.

Speaking at Government Buildings, he said teachers “want to be in school” and that the Government would “do everything we can to ensure that industrial action does not takes place.”

Asked if he could tell parents today that schools will definitely open on Monday, Mr Martin replied: “Yes, yes. We’ve nothing to say that they won’t; we’re saying they will open, of course they’ll open on Monday. We’ll continue to engage with all the partners, but they will open on Monday.”

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