Coronavirus: ‘No isolation needed’ for family members of pupils at Dublin school

Updated: Public health team to decide on Tuesday if large public events can proceed

 Minister for Health, Simon Harris criticised the spread of misinformation on social media about the case. File image: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

Minister for Health, Simon Harris criticised the spread of misinformation on social media about the case. File image: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

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Siblings and parents of students in the Dublin school closed due to the coronavirus are free to continue their daily routine as normal, public health officials have said.

Family members and others in the community are not regarded as contacts of the students in the school for infection control purposes, according to chief medical officer at the Department of Health Dr Tony Holohan.

In a letter sent to parents of all schoolchildren across the State, Dr Holohan says the decision to close the school for 14 days was a precautionary one and arose because pupils and teachers may have had direct contact with the confirmed case.

The National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) made the decision to close the Dublin school after learning that the first person in the Republic to test positive for the virus had became ill after returning from Italy and going back to school. He is currently in isolation in a hospital in the capital.

More than 400 students of the school on Monday began two weeks off after public health officials ordered it to shut to prevent the spread of the disease.

“We’re not concerned about contacts of contacts. They don’t need to stay off school or away from other activities,” deputy chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn told a media briefing on Monday evening.

All the contacts of the person who has the infection have now been contacted, officials said, and the school premises have been cleaned.

The risk of onward transmission of the disease to those in the school remains low, according to Dr John Cuddihy, head of the Health Protection Suveillance Centre.

No new cases have been confirmed in the Republic since the first one reported on Sunday, Dr Holohan said.

The European Centre for Disease Control has upgraded the threat of sustain transmission of the disease in Europe to “moderate to high”. However, Dr Holohan said that while he expects further cases in Ireland, these are likely to be “sporadic”.

Separately, some schools have also been advising pupils to bring to classes with them a wash bag containing a bar of soap, a small towel or face cloth and a packet of tissues and/or hand sanitiser.

Similar advice was given to schools during the swine flu outbreak in 2009/10.

Minister for Health Simon Harris defended the decision of authorities not to name the school, describing it as proportionte and evidence-based.

“It is our job to provide information that is in the public interest; it is not our job to provide information the public is interested in. That is a different test,” he said.

The State’s chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, had earlier pointed out that confidentiality must be maintained so the public would feel confident about coming forward if they thought they might have contracted the virus.

A series of measures had been outlined to parents of pupils at the school urging the students to limit their social interactions and not to attend social gatherings.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald confirmed in a video posted on Twitter that her children attend the affected school. This had been reported by a tabloid newspaper on Monday morning.

“This is a worrying time for families and for the staff at the school, particularly for the family of the person affected and we wish them a very, very speedy recovery,” she said.

“I’ve had to reorganise everything and all of my work schedule because of this, and so the public meetings in Cavan and in Galway this week will unfortunately have to be postponed, but we will set a date for them again very, very soon,” Ms McDonald said, adding she would be back at work on Tuesday.

Misinformation

Mr Harris said any publicity that results in the naming of a child was entirely inappropriate. The advice to students on restricting their movements for 14 days does not apply to family members, he added.

The Minister also criticised the spread of misinformation on social media about the case, saying information had been put out that could have led to the identification of a child. In addition, rumours had gone around on Sunday that “school x or school y” was affected.

The Health Service Executive was due to hold a meeting on Monday evening for parents of the school, who will also be texted daily to check on symptoms so there can be immediate action and follow up if necessary.

“We felt this was a proportionate measure, in the event that someone else becomes ill, they can be diagnosed quickly,” Dr Holohan said .

The senior health official said he understood the impact this could have on families with parents potentially having to take time off work to care for their child, and said it was a decision not been taken lightly.

Minister for Health Simon Harris defended the HSE’s decision not to publicly name the affected school.

In a post on Twitter he said health officials “have to protect anyone who comes forward with symptoms of coronavirus.”

“They are acting in the public interest and helping our national and global efforts to contain this virus. Contact tracing ensures anyone who needs to know knows,” he said.

A spokesman for the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said schools forced to close for two weeks following coronavirus cases should be able to make up lost teaching time upon reopening.

“When schools have been forced to close in the past for a period of time due to extreme weather or other health and safety risks, upon opening again they would typically choose to prioritise tuition over non-tuition activities,” the spokesman said.

This could include “reducing the length of mock or in-house examinations,” and prioritising classroom learning over planned field trips or tours, he said. “And they might seek to ensure that students in examination years attend all classes to the end of the final school term,” the union spokesman said.

Dr John Cuddihy, Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn during a media update on the confirmed case of Coronavirus in Ireland. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Dr John Cuddihy, Dr Tony Holohan and Dr Ronan Glynn during a media update on the confirmed case of Coronavirus in Ireland. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Dr Holohan said decisions from sports clubs near the school to cancel training sessions were unnecessary.

The HSE will find ways to work with all organisations to help provide responses that were proportionate, he said.

He warned that social media had highlighted concerns that had no basis in fact. “Anyone with access to social media, has access to hse.ie for accurate information,” he said.

Some of the information being shared on social media was “completely false” and the public should rely only on “trusted sources,” he said.

St Patrick’s Day

Dr Holohan said this was a fast changing situation and it was difficult to predict what might be of concern in 10 days time, and the impact on large gatherings such as the St Patrick’s Day parade.

The chief medical officer was also adamant that the country had sufficient hospital isolation rooms, and pointed out most people who had been infected elsewhere had experienced only a mild infection and symptoms.

Asked about the possibility of people being infected a second time, Dr Holohan said this was “an open scientific question” as there was much still unknown about the virus.

Public health officials are expected to decide on Tuesday on restrictions that will apply to mass gatherings in light of the worldwide coronavirus outbreak. The restrictions to be decided by the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) may affect the St Patrick’s Day Festival and other big events such as concerts and sports matches over the coming months.

Last week a decision was taken to cancel the Ireland vs Italy Six Nations rugby match, due to take place in the Aviva Stadium this Saturday. This came after a significant outbreak of the coronavirus in parts of northern Italy.

The NPHET made the decision to close the Dublin school upon learning that the first person in the Republic to test positive for the virus had became ill after returning from Italy and going back to school. He is currently in isolation in a hospital in the capital.

Travel advice

Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs has warned Irish citizens to avoid all non-essential travel to Iran due to the spread of the coronavirus there.

Iran thus becomes the second country, after China, to be subject to a travel warning from the Department since the virus outbreak began at the start of this year.

In revised travel advice published on its website, the Department refers to the “high number” of coronavirus cases confirmed in the country - which currently stands at 978. With 54 deaths from the disease, Iran also has one of the highest mortality rates in international terms.

The Department says many flight routes from Iran have been cancelled. “Several international commercial flights remain operational, although some have restrictions in place regarding which citizens they will carry.”

Many land border crossings between Iran and surrounding countries have been closed, including those with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Iraq, Turkey and Pakistan.

The Department also advises against travel to provinces in Iran that border with Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq due to the “persistently dangerous security situation” in these areas.

The Department has advised against all non-essential travel to China, and against all travel to the Chinese province of Hubei, where the outbreak started.

A spokesman said the Department continued to review and update its travel advice as required, in close cooperation with Irish embassies, EU partners and relevant Government departments.