Public Health Agency takes lead on school contact tracing

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From today the Public Health Agency will be the lead body for contact tracing of positive COVID-19 cases in schools.

This approach will replace the current school-led process following agreement between the departments of education and health

The aim 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.

Stormont education minister Michelle McIlveen - has agreed to the change

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.”

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