Schools may get Covid-19 testing capacity at expense of other settings

HSE will reduce mass testing if necessary to free up capacity for school outbreaks

The Department of Education and the HSE are working on actions that they would take to investigate clusters in schools. Photograph: iStock

The Department of Education and the HSE are working on actions that they would take to investigate clusters in schools. Photograph: iStock

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The HSE is planning to leave spare testing capacity within its weekly limit of 100,000 Covid-19 tests for cases in schools and will, if necessary, reduce mass testing in high-risk settings.

Serial testing is being carried out of staff at nursing homes and at meat processing and food production plants in Kildare, Laois and Offaly. Testing has started at direct provision centres.

Health officials plan to leave spare capacity available over the coming weeks as schools reopen to ensure there is sufficient testing to be able to respond to possible outbreaks in schools.

Sources said serial testing to understand the spread of the disease through asymptomatic transmission would be reduced to free up additional capacity for cases in schools and priority would be given to serial testing of symptomatic or vulnerable people in congregated settings.

Health officials tested 13,000 people last Friday, a record since the coronavirus pandemic began in March and 2,000 tests short of the daily limit. It is expected a weekly record of tests will be reached this week.

Under plans being devised by State officials schools would not be immediately closed in the event of Covid-19 outbreaks but would be investigated to assess reasons for outbreaks.

The Department of Education and the HSE are working on actions that they would take to investigate clusters of infections that emerge in individual schools following their reopening this week after being closed since March as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Risk assessment

The framework is designed around a risk assessment by public health officials to examine contacts within schools to determine whether individual teachers or classes had contact in buildings, corridors or playgrounds outside “pods” of students and class “bubbles” and whether infections were limited to certain circumstances and buildings specific to individual schools.

The measures are aimed at avoiding school closures in the event of outbreaks, so clusters of infections are to be investigated on a case-by-case basis.

Prof Philip Nolan, chair of the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group advising Government on Covid-19, acknowledged the anxiety among parents and teachers around schools reopening but said there was little evidence to show schools were major sites of transmission.

Homes were “a much more intimate and high-contact setting than even a school,” he said.

“We have seen 100 cases in children between five and 14 years of age in the last two weeks and we are seeing them here in the context of household outbreaks,” he told RTÉ.

A further 61 confirmed cases of Covid-19 were reported in the Republic on Sunday, with no further deaths. This brings total cases of the disease in the State to 27,969. Some 1,777 people have died.

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