Asymptomatic testing in schools

Monday, 25 May, 2020

Asymptomatic testing in schools

Students and teachers at WA public schools are being tested for COVID-19 as part of the state-funded Detect population study focused on asymptomatic individuals.

150 individuals will be randomly tested each month for three months (or longer, depending on the number of positive cases reported) in an effort to better understand possible transmission in schools. Participation is voluntary and requires the consent of staff and by parents on behalf of their child or children.

The study has three aspects, the first being a surveillance study in which a sample of staff and students from participating schools will be tested for COVID-19. Parents will be advised of the outcome of tests.

The response to positive tests will vary slightly from the usual public health response and this forms the second aspect of the study.

Contact tracing by the Department of Health will require any student or staff member who tests positive to COVID-19, along with their close contacts, to self-isolate as normal. However, all close contacts will undergo multiple tests for COVID-19 at intervals over two weeks, irrespective of whether they show symptoms.

They would also keep a symptom diary for that period.

The intent of the more comprehensive response to a positive test is to identify any onward transmission from the index case and provide a greater understanding of the role schools play in the transmissibility of COVID-19 between students and staff, and the wider community via household members and other non-school contacts.

The final component of the study relates to the psychosocial impacts of COVID-19 among students, their parents and teachers.

Through a series of 15-minute surveys, students of various age groups, parents and teachers will provide information on how COVID-19 is impacting their physical, social and emotional wellbeing.

It is hoped that by identifying risk factors, protective measures may be rapidly implemented in schools to meet their needs.

The study has been expanded to incorporate FIFO workers and frontline healthcare workers will potentially be included as well.

While there is currently no evidence of community spread and schools are considered low-risk environments, it is hoped the Detect study will assist in developing an even stronger evidence base on which to make policy decisions.

The study is a partnership between the departments of Health and Education with the Telethon Kids Institute.

WA Premier Mark McGowan said the program will provide valuable insight and guide future action.

"While we have taken swift action to avoid community spread, we continue to take further steps to protect Western Australians and we will keep learning more about this virus.

"This is why I previously announced we would further expand COVID-19 testing as part of a research project for priority groups.

"This new study in collaboration with some of the state's best researchers allows us to introduce a random spot check testing system in schools and other priority settings," he said.

Health Minister Roger Cook said asymptomatic testing is the next step in better understanding the overall health impacts of COVID-19.

"All available evidence indicates that schools are safe and our commitment to this study should provide the community with further reassurance that we are taking reasonable steps to detect any undiagnosed COVID-19 in WA and better understand how schools are impacted by the virus.

"Testing people who do not have COVID symptoms from some of our key community sectors will help us better understand the health and economic impacts of this devastating virus.

"The team involved in the Detect program come from a range of leading medical research institutes in WA, brought together by WA Health. I thank them for their efforts and I am confident this research study will provide vital insights to assist us in our ongoing battle with COVID-19.

"This study is in addition to a $3 million commitment to COVID-19 related health and medical research projects, an indication of the McGowan government's commitment to tackling this virus on all fronts," he said.

Understanding the psychosocial impacts of COVID-19 is important to ensuring appropriate support measures are available, according to Education and Training Minister Sue Ellery.

"Until now we have had no student to student or student to teacher transmission of COVID-19 and we want this to continue.

"However, this study will play an important role in establishing whether asymptomatic transmission may occur and which groups may be at greater risk.

"I am particularly pleased that the study will also consider the psychosocial impacts as the mental wellbeing of our school community is just as important as physical wellbeing.

"We want to understand how COVID-19 is affecting our teachers, school staff and students — both inside and outside the classroom — so we can ensure the appropriate support measures are available," Ellery said.

Image credit: © Naumov

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