PHA Contact Tracing Service to lead on school contact tracing as local schools feel Covid impact
The Departments of Education and Health have agreed that, from today, the Public Health Agency’s (PHA) Contact Tracing Service (CTS) will be the lead body responsible for contact tracing of positive cases within a school setting.
This approach will replace the current school-led process to identify close contacts of COVID-19 cases with a more targeted PHA-led approach, with support from school leaders in certain circumstances. The aim of this change is to reduce the potential for large numbers of pupils being required to self-isolate and reduce the amount of time spent by schools on contact tracing.
The move comes as a number of local schools across Northern Ireland faced closure due to the continuing spread of Covid-19 particularly among the younger age groups of 5-19 years old.
Figures published yesterday (Thursday 9
September) by the Department of Health showed that 837 new positive cases were reported over the 24 hour period in the 0-19 years old age bracket.
On Monday (6 September) it was revealed that in one County Antrim school, more than half the pupils were off self-isolating either as a result of a positive Covid test, or as a close contact of a confirmed positive case.
At least 400 pupils from Larne High School were at home just one week into the new school term and concerned was voiced over the impact to children’s education. Responding to the situation, Education Minister Michelle McIlveen commented:
“Our main focus is about ensuring that our young people remain in education and that we don't have prolonged lengths of time when they are away from school.”
It is hoped the changes announced today will help alleviate some of the pressure on school staff and education settings across the province.
Dr Elizabeth Mitchell, Director of Contact Tracing at the PHA, said:
“In recent weeks the high community prevalence of COVID-19 in Northern Ireland has led to a large number of cases being reported by schools. This has caused disruption for many, as the new school term starts.
“We know that COVID-19 is still a threat and we are still experiencing relatively large numbers of positive cases daily. It is important that children stay in school as much as possible but there is a balance to be struck in terms of risk. We also need to ensure that we do what we can to stop the spread of the virus and reduce the number of positive cases by identifying individuals who have had the closest contact with a case and are at highest risk of getting COVID-19.
“The new arrangements will require some operational changes to the Contact Tracing Service model and may also require some changes to close contact definitions for children in a school setting. Time is needed to fully embed this service but from today the PHA contact tracers will speak to parents or guardians of positive cases and ask for their support in identifying their child’s close contacts.
“Parents and guardians will be primarily responsible for informing the school principal of their child’s positive result. Parents can help by familiarising themselves with the process; if their child tests positive for COVID-19 – expect to be contacted by the CTC, recognise our number (028 9536 8888) by adding it to your phone’s contacts, and please answer when we do call.
“School leaders will no longer be required to respond to every case and identify contacts. The PHA will undertake the work and will contact the school principal for assistance in certain circumstances. This proposed model is in line with the approach being taken to schools in England, Scotland and Wales and should see fewer pupils being asked to isolate and test, keeping more children in school.
“We still ask that schools continue to focus on the range of mitigations they have in place to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission including:
• cleaning, ventilation, face coverings, consistent groups and regular asymptomatic testing using lateral flow devices for all staff and post-primary pupils;
• Vaccination is available to all staff and some students, and will be encouraged.
“A separate arrangement for special schools will be developed that takes account of the particular needs and vulnerabilities of those settings. While the overall burden will still be reduced, PHA risk assessments may mean that special school principals will be contacted more frequently about cases than mainstream colleagues.
“Interim advice is being provided to schools, which will be supplemented with more information in the coming days.”
The changes to contact tracing will mean that the PHA COVID-19 Educational Support Helpline and email will no longer be in operation. However, the EA confirmed cases helpline will remain active Monday to Friday 8am – 8pm and, Saturday and Sunday 10am-2pm, should schools require further advice and support.