Q&A What will a primary school antigen test programme look like? 

Q&A What will a primary school antigen test programme look like? 

The ECDC says 'mitigation and response strategies that avoid or minimise school closures should be given priority where possible'. Picture: Sam Boal / RollingNews.ie

Detailed arrangements for an antigen testing programme in primary schools will be available soon. What could such a scheme look like? 

Why is there talk about an antigen testing programme for primary schools?

Since the end of September, automatic contact tracing of asymptomatic close contacts in young children in creches, primary schools, social and sporting groups no longer takes place. 

The changes were implemented as thousands of children missed school due to being designated a close contact. An unvaccinated cohort, this age group has seen a high incidence rate of Covid-19 since. Many schools have also continued to deal with significant infections of Covid-19 in their students. 

New advice from the European Centre for Disease Protection and Control (ECDC) issued towards the end of October and referred to by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan, talks about the importance of contact tracing, and of rapid antigen testing.

What does the new advice from the ECDC say?

It says clearly that "mitigation and response strategies that avoid or minimise school closures should be given priority where possible". It also adds that contact tracing is “important in school settings to rapidly identify secondary cases in order to avoid large outbreaks and the interruption of school activities". 

It notes effective mitigation measures lower the risk of some children and, depending on the degree of the measures, vaccination and testing implemented in schools, a “stepwise” approach could also be taken. This includes testing only the closest contacts of a confirmed case, testing an entire class if two or more cases in a class are found, and considering quarantining the entire class if additional cases are found in a class.

On rapid antigen detection tests, referred to as RADT, the ECDC says where the tests are available or can be scaled-up, "test-to-stay" strategies could also be considered as a way to minimise disruption to schools and absenteeism, while also limiting further transmission.

The ECDC also notes that a trial in the UK found daily testing of school-based contacts was found to be a “non-inferior” and safe alternative to self-quarantine.

When will the programme be in place?

There is no indication yet. The INTO has called for no further delays. “We can’t afford to wait to have the numbers double again, they already doubled last month,” said John Boyle, INTO general secretary. The HSE has confirmed to the Irish Examiner it has sufficient stock to meet demand. The CMO says details will be finalised in the coming days.

How will it work?

Again, we’re not sure yet, as the exact details have yet to be worked out. Some of the key questions will be around who administers the tests but they are most likely to be home-based. The antigen testing programme also won't be widespread, like in the UK, but used as more of an outbreak response, according to the CMO. In Australia, the tests are used more as a tool to keep children in school, under a ‘test-to-stay” approach. 

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