‘Test to stay’: COVID screening before school could replace class quarantine

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Screening students with a rapid antigen test before their school day works just as well as quarantining an entire class for managing the spread of the coronavirus if a classmate tests positive for COVID-19, according to the updated modelling backing the national reopening plan.

The “test to stay” method was outlined in new Doherty Institute modelling published on Monday after it was presented to national cabinet on Friday. It includes several reports on outbreak management including in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and for international borders.

Rapid antigen tests could be used to keep children in school.

Off the back of the updated expert advice, the country’s leaders agreed to changes to quarantine arrangements for contacts of COVID-19 cases, including different rules depending on vaccination status, and tasked the country’s chief health officers with designing a national guide for the use of rapid antigen tests.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison pointed out the Doherty modelling showed it was safe to reopen state borders once 80 per cent of the eligible population aged 16 and up were fully vaccinated, as agreed to by all state and territory leaders in the national plan.

“The national plan was a deal with Australians. My government is keeping our part of that deal. Australians are keeping their part of the deal,” he said.

Across the country, 89.4 per cent of the eligible population aged 16 and up have had one dose and 80.6 per cent are fully vaccinated as states and territories begin to move into different phases of the national reopening plan. So far more than 177,000 people have received boosters.

Despite the national road map, state and territory reopening plans vary. Travel is already permitted between NSW and Victoria, and Queensland will reopen to other states once it reaches 80 per cent fully vaccinated or by December 17.

But Tasmania and West Australia plan on reopening their borders only when they reach 90 per cent fully vaccinated in everyone aged 12 and up. Tasmania is set to reopen on December 15, but WA may not reach that 90 per cent mark until early February.

Mr Morrison said treasury advice showed that remaining locked down past 80 per cent fully vaccinated harmed the economy.

“You are actually putting a price on Australians when you continue to put heavy restrictions on your economy once you get 80 per cent vaccination rates,” he said.

In Friday’s national cabinet meeting, state and territory leaders were advised by the Doherty Institute that twice-weekly rapid antigen testing of students could significantly reduce the chance of school outbreaks and if outbreaks were detected, daily testing of class contacts and seven-day quarantine for positive cases only would help reduce the spread.

Already NSW and Victoria have announced or launched plans to regularly screen school children for the virus.

Associate Professor Nic Geard, from The University of Melbourne’s school of computing and information systems, said even if a student tested positive for COVID-19, the modelling found ‘testing to stay’ during the standard quarantine period was just as effective at minimising spread as forcing entire classes to stay home.

“It makes a lot of sense because you do cut off the infectious days spent in school by catching them in the morning before the students go to school,” he said, pointing out that students and in particular younger children are less susceptible to infection.

Isolating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in quarantine facilities or hospitals rather than at home, and vaccinating children as young as five will also help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in those communities, according to the modelling.

But the country’s medical experts have not yet approved the Pfizer vaccine for five to 11-year-olds. Mr Morrison said the US decision on that age group was based on data from 3000 trial participants, and Australia wanted to be cautious.

“We won’t take a further step on this unless there is clear medical advice that it should proceed,” he said.

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