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Testing, tracing needed to prevent COVID-19 spread at schools, study finds

By Brian Dunleavy
Testing, tracing needed to prevent COVID-19 spread at schools, study finds
Effective testing and contact tracing is the only way to open schools and limit spread of COVID-19, researchers say. Pictured, students in Israel wear protective masks as they return to the Yankus Korchak Elementary School in Jerusalem in May. Photo by Debbie Hill/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 3 (UPI) -- Effective testing and contact tracing is essential for schools and day-care centers to safely reopen during COVID-19 pandemic, a study published Monday by The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health found.

Using workplace, community, demographic and epidemiological data, researchers in Britain modeled six scenarios for school reopening.

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These included a full-time scenario, as well as a hybrid system in which half the students would attend school each week on a rotating basis, with online learning supplementing in-person classes.

If schools test between 59% and 87% of students that have symptoms of COVID-19, they could help Britain avoid a second wave of COVID-19 infections, the researchers said.

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This, however, requires effective contact tracing -- identifying others who might have been exposed to an infected person -- and isolation of confirmed cases, they said.

In one model, if school officials traced 68% of contacts for confirmed COVID-19 cases, 75% of students with symptoms of the virus would need to be diagnosed and isolated for youngsters to return to classes full-time in September.

If the hybrid approach were used, where half of the students attend on alternate weeks, 65% would need to be diagnosed and isolated, researchers said.

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But if only 40% of contacts could be traced, 87% would need to be diagnosed and isolated under the full-time approach and 75% would need to be diagnosed and isolated under the hybrid approach, they said.

In addition, if testing and contact tracing falls below these levels across the national population, reopening schools together with a gradual relaxing of the lockdown measures -- including parents returning to work -- would likely result in a secondary wave of infections that would peak in December, they said.

The modeling study should be "a loud call to action to improve the infection control measures -- and test and trace system -- so we can get children back to school without interrupting their learning again for extended periods of time," researcher Chris Bonell said in a press release.

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"This is even more important in the context of opening up other areas of society," said Bonell, who is head of the department of public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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