NSW study finds children less likely to spread COVID-19 in schools

Paediatrician Kristine Macartney discusses what life will be like when school returns

Most children who become infected with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms and caught the virus from their parents rather than at school, a new report has found.

The National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) examined the 51 NSW schools and childcare centres that had COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the Delta outbreak from June 16 to July 31.

It found children rarely spread COVID-19 to other children, teachers or staff.

The report showed that despite a five-fold increase in the spread of COVID-19 in NSW schools, only 2 per cent of infected children required care in hospital.

Kristine Macartney, a pediatrician and director of NCIRS, said the spread between children was "very low".

"The highest rate of spread was actually amongst unvaccinated adult staff, and particularly unvaccinated adult staff in childcare centres," Professor Macartney said.

"The spread of virus also occurred from adults to children, but the spread between children themselves was very low."

Children who were diagnosed with COVID-19 were often asymptomatic or developed mild symptoms, Professor Macartney said.

"We've seen extremely few children admitted to the intensive care unit," she said. 

"Only around two per cent (of children) will require hospitalisation and for many of those it's for monitoring and social care."

The study found the primary spread of COVID-19 was in households, and it was "primarily driven by unvaccinated adults".

Schools across Sydney have closed for cleaning during the pandemic, like Strathfield South Public School. (AAP: Joel Carrett)

Out of the 8,900 schools and childcare centres in NSW, COVID-19 cases were identified in 51 facilities in the first six weeks of the Delta outbreak until July 31.

Cases have been identified at a further 91 educational facilities between August 1 to 19.

The transmissibility of the Delta strain led to Professor Macartney supporting stay-at-home orders for students until vaccination rates increase.

The majority of students have spent months studying remotely during the outbreak, but there will be staggered return to the classroom from October 25.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian today said vaccination was the best way to protect children once they return to school.

"The safest way to protect children is to have high vaccinate rates among adults and adolescents," she said.

"That's why we've had a very strong focus on making sure as many adults as possible are vaccinated, making sure teachers and school staff are vaccinated.

"That's the best way to protect children and prevent spread in any school setting."

Teachers Federation President Angelo Gavrielatos said he was worried about case numbers when children go back to school.

"These levels of transmission are occurring at a time when there is on average across the state fewer than 5 per cent of students on school sites. We are deeply concerned what the numbers will be when student numbers grow," he said.

"What it clearly highlights is that the national roll out of vaccinations for young people — 12 to 15 — has to be accelerated."

Epidemiologist Nancy Baxter said it was important to reassure parents about their children returning to school.

"While it is important to reassure parents that children do quite well — this is not a cold," she said.

"Two per cent of children do have to go to hospital for this.

"I think reassuring parents is important because a lot of people are extremely anxious right now, but I think we also need to do everything we possibly can do to protect our children."


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