Experts divided on plans to reopen schools

Acting CMO 'not overly concerned' professor in public health says new cases must be sharply reduced first
Experts divided on plans to reopen schools
Dr Ronan Glynn: Not downplaying situation but also 'not overly concerned'. Picture:Gareth Chaney/Collins

Two of the country's leading health experts are at odds over when schools should reopen, with one saying newly confirmed Covid-19 cases should be near zero and the other maintaining that children are at little risk of spreading the virus.

Dr Ronan Glynn, the acting chief medical officer, said while there will be outbreaks in schools when they reopen, only 2% of all reported cases are children and it appears “they don't transmit very effectively to other children or adults". 

He said he was not downplaying the situation but was “not overly concerned". 

Dr Glynn said while there will be "bumps" along the way, "on balance if we keep community transmission low in the communities, the risks to individual children should be low".

 He said these risks are “far outweighed” by the benefits of children going back to school.

However,  Professor Anthony Staines, an expert in public health and health systems at Dublin City University, has told the Irish Examiner he believes new cases must be sharply reduced if schools are to reopen safely.

“The challenge for planning to reopen schools is that the virus is in the community,” said Prof Staines.

 “Where we keep coming back to is, are we planning to live with this virus until a vaccine emerges, which is the current Government policy?"

“In the best-case scenario, a vaccine could be developed within nine months, which is still a school year, or within a number of years should the current vaccines being trialled not work. 

"Or do we develop a serious plan that says ‘We nearly got this virus to zero in the middle of the summer — we will go back to that and this time, we’re not going to stop'?"

To drive transmission of the virus down to zero, Prof Staines believes it would take four to six weeks of strict lockdown measures implemented on a county level.

He maintains that evidence from other European countries who have already opened schools shows older children spread the disease as effectively as adults.

“There is also emerging evidence that even primary-school children can spread the disease. That’s still very uncertain, but it may be the case,” said Prof Staines.

The European countries that reopened schools that I am familiar with have kept numbers of students way down and limited contact significantly. As far as I can see, we are not really planning to do that. 

In a statement issued last night, the Department of Education said it will continue to liaise with public-health officials in the lead-up to the reopening of schools, as has been the case since the beginning of the pandemic.

Dr Glynn said he hopes the transmission rates in Kildare, Laois, and Offaly would be sufficiently down by the end of their two-week lockdown periods to allow schools reopen there. 

The number of confirmed cases in Kildare during the past two weeks is 138.4 cases per 100,000 of population, which is almost eight times the national average. Laois is at 109 cases per 100,000 and Offaly 83.8.

Ireland has now surpassed Britain for the first time for confirmed cases as a percentage of population. There were no deaths recorded here yesterday, although 57 new cases were confirmed.

Dr Glynn said new cases were not just confined to the counties in lockdown. 

In the past 14 days, 36 have been reported in Limerick, 34 in Clare, 21 in Wexford, 20 in Meath, 22 in Cork, 21 in Donegal, 14 in Cavan, and eight each in Galway and Mayo.

Meanwhile, the HSE says it may take “a day or so” before every Android phone in Ireland receives a software update to fix a battery-drainage problem experienced by people using the Covid Tracker app.

Because of a software glitch, approximately 83,000 people uninstalled the tracker app.

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