Australia/February 04, 2022/By: Adeshola Ore/Source: https://www.theguardian.com/
Localised rapid antigen testing in schools could be important for controlling outbreaks even after the initial four-week period
Rapid antigen surveillance testing in schools should remain in place beyond the initial one-month period but could be then used in a more localised way, according to epidemiologists.
In Victoria and New South Wales, where the school year commenced this week, governments are urging primary and secondary school students and staff to use at-home rapid antigen tests twice a week for the first four weeks of term in an effort to slow the spread of Covid.
With the number of active Covid infections dropping nationally, parents and students alike may be hoping for a reprieve from the process after four weeks.
But the head of the University of Melbourne’s school of population and global health, Prof Nancy Baxter, said if surveillance screening was successful in detecting Covid infections it should be in place for longer than four weeks regardless of whether Australia had passed the peak of Omicron cases.
“One of the challenges is we will see high case numbers for a considerable period of time, so four weeks may be a good time to re-evaluate but it’s not going to be the time to stop,” she said.
“We can expect a lot of transmission in schools but it’s going to be even higher if we start loosening restrictions.”
The chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, Prof Catherine Bennett, said as the Omicron wave moved beyond its peak, surveillance screening at workplaces and educational institutions would gradually become less useful.
“As incidence goes down in the population these tests become less useful as an active screen of asymptomatic people which is why we didn’t use them during Delta,” she said.
“So you run the risk of having false positives and wasting a lot of tests without finding any cases or finding as many false positives as true positives.”
But she said rapid antigen tests could be in place for longer than the initial one-month period in localised settings.
“Say there’s a regional centre like Bendigo and suddenly they see lots of cases in the community, you might have that [rapid antigen surveillance screening] in the Bendigo schools.
“They’re going to learn a lot this month about how many kids who test positive and then go and have a PCR come back negative and how many cases they are picking up. This is the big test week because kids are coming out of the community, haven’t been tested and we’re finding kids who are positive and took Covid to school unknowingly.”
Under South Australia’s guidelines, close contacts need to undergo a rapid antigen test every day for seven days and can attend school if they return a negative result.
Prof Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, said a “test-to-stay” approach or surveillance testing could limit outbreaks in schools.
“Anything we can do to reduce transmission is a good thing,” he said.
“I can’t see the reasoning for only doing it for four weeks. It makes sense to do it on a permanent basis.”
Victoria’s deputy premier and education minister, James Merlino, said the rapid antigen testing would help minimise disruptions from staff absences to ensure children could remain at school.
Guardian Australia understands the Victorian government has not ruled out extending the surveillance testing measure if it is successful at detecting infections, subject to potential supply constraints. In NSW, the state government will review the strategy after two weeks.
For parents, adding rapid antigen testing into the weekly routine has not been without challenges. But executive director of advocacy group The Parenthood, Georgie Dent, said most families were happy to participate in the process.
“I know the surveillance screening isn’t perfect as parents and children doing it themselves is not as accurate as a trained nurse,” she said.
“But parents and children are fairly comfortable with this uncomfortable reality.”