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Primary schools in focus as outbreak shifts gears


Murdoch Children’s Research Institute paediatrician Fiona Russell said the department was now outsourcing the management of school outbreaks to schools, but they were not adequately resourced to take on the task.

She said infections were sometimes not picked up on day-one testing, making rapid antigen tests essential for days after an initial exposure.

“That’s the problem now, you don’t know who is positive and so nobody is staying home, so there’s ongoing infection,” Professor Russell said.

There were 475 government school closures because of COVID-19 cases during the first seven weeks of term 4, until November 19, government figures show.

With just two weeks of the school year to go, Victorian Principals Association president Andrew Dalgleish said some principals were exhausted and needed families to be patient, noting a school with two COVID-19 cases was required to contact about 120 families.

In addition to the known clusters, a Health Department spokesman said “a significant proportion of transmission is occurring in the community – at home, between family and friends – especially where there is no vaccination requirement for visitors.”

Umber Rind, a GP who works at Campbellfield in Melbourne’s north, said her COVID-19 positive patients fell into two categories.

The first, smaller group included adults who tested positive before getting their second late vaccine dose and were left extremely unwell. The second, larger group were children who contracted the virus from school and didn’t get that sick.

She is hopeful that a recent TGA decision to provisionally approve the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for those aged five to 11, combined with schools shutting for the summer holidays, would result in the number of infections dropping or stabilising.

Hume, a local government area in Melbourne’s north, continues to be the epicentre of Melbourne’s Delta outbreak. The zone, which includes the suburbs of Broadmeadows, Tullamarine and Craigieburn, has 865 active cases – the highest of all Victorian municipalities.

Credit:Matt Golding

Evie Cookson, 7, was one of a handful of children in her Coburg North Primary School class to catch COVID-19 late last month. She said she didn’t like getting the virus, despite remaining without symptoms throughout her infection.

“You don’t get to go to the park … we had to sit at home and do nothing.”

Coronavirus was rougher on the vaccinated adults in the household. Evie’s mother, Megan Gemmill, was the last to fall sick.

A few days away from her release from home quarantine, her sense of taste and smell are yet to come back, but Mrs Gemmill said she is glad that her family has had COVID-19 and can move forward with less fear of catching and spreading it over Christmas.

James Trauer, head of epidemiological modelling at Monash University’s School of Public Health, said Melbourne faced persistently high case numbers because it was a “dense, populous, high-income setting” with cold winters, rendering it vulnerable to the virus.

Victoria’s case numbers could still increase quickly, Professor Trauer warned, noting it was unlikely that cases would continue to plateau at 1000 new infections a day.

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“Usually something has to tip it in either direction. We could see things change pretty quickly.”

For a period, the postcode home to the small town of Nhill, close to the South Australian border, had among the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per head of population, with 1 in 39 people having the virus.

The outbreak gives an insight into how COVID-19 is now spreading in highly vaccinated communities. The majority of cases were in unvaccinated primary school children attending Nhill College, but the virus also spread at social events and was detected at the town’s major employer, the Luv-a-Duck processing plant.

Dr Bloch said it was no longer the case that a child’s entire family would get infected if they brought COVID home, as had happened in early Delta outbreaks when authorities reported a household attack rate of 100 per cent.

“Now what we’re seeing is that those who aren’t vaccinated – the kids who haven’t had the chance yet – have tended to get infected, but in the same households, usually the parents aren’t infected because they are fully vaccinated.”

Data analyst Anthony Macali, the founder of website Covid Live, said there was a limit to the insights the public Victorian government data could provide about how the virus was spreading, as about 11,500 of the more than 13,000 active cases had not been linked to clusters.

Nevertheless, he said there were some notable trends, including a declining rate of hospitalisations, with the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals falling from 779 to 297 since October 21.

“That’s been stable for the last two or three weeks … that’s the most important metric, because those are the grounds for opening up.”

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