Primary school-aged children now have the highest Covid-19 incidence of any age group, new figures show.
Among children aged five to 12 years there were 5,374 coronavirus infections detected last week or 979 cases per 100,000.
This is up from 4,211 the previous week or 767 per 100,000.
The figures are contained in a weekly epidemiology report compiled by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) for the week ending November 20th.
Based on this data – which shows 10,000 positive cases in a fortnight – education sources estimate the number of children isolating from primary school for reasons linked to the virus is likely to be well in excess of 15,000 when siblings are factored in.
This does not include symptomatic children who are isolating at home and waiting for PCR tests.
HPSC data for last week also showsthat the number of outbreaks in schools rose to 24, up from 16 the previous week.
These outbreaks ranged from two cases in a school to 16.
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“The risk of onward transmission from undetected asymptomatic cases within the school setting remains low,” it adds.
The report also notes that the infection rate for primary school-aged children has been rising since mid-October, but that the risk of transmission within a school still remains “low”. It says increases among pre-school and primary-aged children have been consistent with increases across other age groups over the same time period.
The proportion of cases among five- to 12-year-olds as share of the overall population has continued to remain “relatively stable”, despite increase in incidence rates.
It states that increases in the disease incidence among school-aged children, or the detection of an outbreak in a school, does not of itself indicate that transmission occurred within the school.
“Clusters of cases may be detected within a particular setting despite exposure and transmission having occurred elsewhere,” it adds.
Meanwhile, Minister for Education Norma Foley has confirmed that antigen test guidance will be made available for primary schools and parents this week ahead of their introduction from Monday next.
The Health Service Executive will post antigen tests to children in cases where another child in their pod tests positive or where there are two or more cases in a class within a week.
She also confirmed that urgent measures aimed at tackling a staffing crisis facing schools, which include an extra 200 substitutes and moves to boost the supply of students and retired teachers.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation welcomed the move, but called for a return to contact tracing in schools to ensure they are safe settings.
The unions’s general secretary, John Boyle, said while the Department of Education was “playing their part”, it was now up to the Department of Health to organise public health measures such as a return to contact tracing.
Ronan Glynn – the State’s deputy chief medical officer – has said that schools are not as safe now as they were several months ago due to a surge in cases.
“What I would fully accept is that schools are not as safe now as they were, when incidence was lower a number of months ago,” Dr Glynn told the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk.
“No environment is as safe now as it was then. And we’ve said all along that when incidence is really high in the community, as it is at the moment, then schools are not as safe as they would otherwise be. We’ve never said that schools are a safe environment, we’ve said they’re a lower-risk environment.”