Health

Early school reopenings quell virus concerns (for most)

Theres some good news for countries just beginning to reopen schools.

Their European counterparts — such as Denmark, Austria and Germany — that began sending children back to classrooms in April and early May, havent seen significant increases in new cases. And experts are cautiously optimistic that sending children back to school may be relatively safe.

But its early days yet. Incremental returns to school and robust infection control measures have been part of the game plan in those countries that have reopened classrooms successfully. With big questions around the virus still hanging in the air, some experts are issuing plenty of caveats.

The exemplar is Denmark, where the first children began returning in mid-April, when the country had just under 200 new cases a day. As of June 8, Denmark had just 14 daily new cases. And while the reproduction rate of the virus increased after the country began reopening, it has since dropped.

The head of experimental virology at Copenhagen Universitys Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, Allan Randrup Thomsen, was initially hesitant about the move. But now he notes that, since reopening, there “hasnt been any effect that we can see.”

“In every step there was monitoring to make sure that the number of newly infected cases wasnt going up and that there were no adverse effects with the reopenings” —Eva Schernhammer, Medical University of Vienna.

In fact, the statistical models predicted there would be more spreading than was actually observed, according to Søren Riis Paludan, professor in virology at Aarhus University. The puzzle is why that didnt happen.

“Opening the schools has really not been translated into any imprint in the transmission numbers,” he said.

One factor could be the effective implementation of social distancing, Riis Paludan said. Another, according to Randrup Thomsen, is the lack of opportunities for the virus to transmit to a larger number of people than it usually would.

“Modeling experiments suggest that its particularly through what we call super spreading situations that this epidemic is maintained,” he said. “Those situations have not been created.”

In Norway, where schools began reopening on April 20, the spread of infection has continued on a downward trend, even though cases keep on being detected through increased testing.

Similarly positive figures coming out of Austria could add evidence to emerging science indicating that children possibly dont contract coronavirus as easily as adults, said Eva Schernhammer, head of the Department of Epidemiology at the Medical University of Vienna.

In Austria, senior-year students returned at the beginning of May, when new cases were hovering at around 50 per day, followed by more widespread returns in mid-May. In June, new daily cases have varied between two and 66.

“So far, so good,” said Schernhammer of the effects of reopening schools. She also noted these figures remain relatively low despite most lockdown measures being withdrawn, apart from social distancing and mask usage in some public spaces.

Easy does it

But in Austria, the reopening has taken place with baby steps.

“In every step there was monitoring to make sure that the number of newly infected cases wasnt going up and that there were no adverse effects with the reopenings,” said Schernhammer.

Germany was similarly cautious in reopening. In fact, Ralf Reintjes, professor of epidemiology and surveillance at Hamburg University of Applied Sciences, said that schools havent truly reopened in the country, with many children still being taught online and having limited attendance in schools.

“It cannot be said theyve reopened, theyve opened the door a few centimeters,” he said, adding: “Its very early to say what effects this will have.”

Hes also cautious that as Germany returns to a semblance of normality it “will become more and more risky.”

Germany was cautious in reopening schools | Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

“Were holding our breath at the moment, and were hoping that things go well, but we have our concerns,” he said.

While admitting that the reported figures look “quite promising” and that the approach in Germany has so far not been “too bad,” he argues that the pandemic is “more complicated.”

“Its not just monocausal,” he said. “There are lots of factors influencing it.”

Similarly, Karl Lauterbach, a politician from the Social Democratic Party of Germany and professor of health economics and epidemiology at the University of Cologne, is hesitant about making any assumptions at this stage.

Lauterbach said that in Germany, Austria and Denmark, one couldnt make any inferences about the reproduction rate and the opening of schools.

A June 8 modeling study published in Nature was unable to disentangle the effects of school closures from other interventions.

“They reopened the schools in all of these countries where there was a very low baseline rate of infection,” he explained.

The reticence in Germany about making assumptions around the effect of reopening schools may be colored by a recent outbreak of the virus in Göttingen following a large celebration and the illegal opening of a shisha bar. Around 57 children were among the close contacts of those who tested positive.

The outbreak led to stricter infection control measures in 13 schools in the area, reported Der Spiegel on June 2.

Second wave

While the virus may be waning in Europe, fears of a second wave are also increasing. Whether schools should be closed again if this happens is a matter up for debate.

“Based on the scientific evidence alone, I would say thats not a good reason for closing the schools,” said Riis Paludan. Instead, he believes, the key is to protect the elderly.

Randrup Thomsen is similarly hopeful.

“With the R rate close to or above one in a number of areas of the U.K., decisions to reopen schools more widely could be extremely damaging” — NASUWTs General Secretary Patrick Roach

“If we came to a situation where we had to lock down again, because of research in the epidemic, we should very seriously consider whether closing the schools is actually necessary,” he said.

The evidence is still murky here. A June 8 modeling study published in Nature was unable to disentangle the effects of school closures from other interventions such as the stopping of public events and self-isolation rules.

However, it found that together, these interventions had a substantial impact on transmission.

For Schernhammer, the evidence available indicates that case numbers need to be down to relatively low levels for it to be safe to lift any lockdown measures. And she believes there is still work to be done to figure out the “perfect moment” whenRead More – Source