COVID-19 mainly from community transmission – ECEC cases low risk, MCRI study finds

by Freya Lucas

September 30, 2020

Cases of COVID-19 found in early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings and schools are mainly the result of community transmission, and, as such, the use of off site learning should be “a last resort,” a new report from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) has found. 

 

The report, prepared at the request of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and Department of Education and Training (DET) recommends that schools and childcare centres should reopen as soon as community transmission of coronavirus falls and stays low.

 

“Over the past three months, school and childcare COVID-19 outbreaks were far more likely in those areas that also had high community levels, suggesting community transmission drives COVID-19 spread in schools,” Professor Fiona Russell, who led the MCRI analysis team said.

 

Compiled by analysing DHHS and DET data which included reported COVID-19 cases and outbreaks across all early childhood and primary and secondary educational settings in Victoria from 25 January to 31 August, the report found that 113 known contractions of COVID-19 (involving a single case or more) could be attributed to childcare with 234 cases potentially acquiring COVID-19 via events linked to childcare.

 

For schools, eight per cent of all cases could be traced back to a school contraction. For every million school students, 337 students (0.03 per cent) may have acquired COVID-19 via a school outbreak. 

 

Of 373 students and 139 staff who were potentially infected through a childcare or school outbreak, four students and four staff were admitted to hospital, all of whom subsequently recovered.

 

“Childcare and schools play a critical role not only in providing education, but also offer critical support, especially for the most vulnerable of students, which makes them a priority for opening and remaining open,” the report’s senior co-author MCRI Professor Sharon Goldfeld said.

 

“Closing schools should be a last resort, especially for childcare and primary school children as cases in this age group are less likely to transmit and be associated with an outbreak,” she added. 

 

Although the report was not able to determine the direction of transmission, the authors anticipate that this data will be gathered in Term Four if any additional outbreaks occur.

 

The report also provided detailed plans to prevent possible outbreaks following the staged easing of lockdown restrictions which would follow a traffic light system. These plans have drawn on experiences from international settings, designed to reduce day-to-day disruptions as far as possible, while ensuring that teachers, students and the wider community are kept as safe as possible.

 

Key findings from the report are as follows:

 

  •  Of one million students enrolled, 337 (0.03 per cent) had an infection linked to a school outbreak.
  • 113 known events (involving a single case or more) in childcare with 234 cases potentially acquiring COVID-19 via events linked to childcare.
  •  1,635 infections were linked with childcare and schools in some way, out of a total of 19,901 infections in Victoria. Cases associated with schools accounted for eight per cent of all infections in Victoria.

 

  • Testing, tracing and isolation within 48 hours of a notification is the most important strategy to prevent an outbreak. In Victoria, the average time between confirmation of the first case in childcare or school and education provider closure was two days. This timely response prevented outbreaks from occurring as 66 per cent of outbreaks in schools involved just a single infection in a staff member or student and 91 per cent involved fewer than 10 cases.

 

  • Of 139 infected staff and 373 infected students who may have acquired COVID via a childcare or school outbreak, eight (four staff and four students) were admitted to hospital and all recovered. 
  • Infections in childcare and schools were rarely linked to infections in the most vulnerable population, the elderly.
  • If the first case was a child aged 0-5 years, an outbreak (two or more cases) was very uncommon.

 

To read the executive summary of the COVID-19 in Victorian Schools report please see here

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