‘Vital’ schools reopen as soon as possible, EU disease prevention chief tells MEPs

School closures should be the ‘last measure you take’ to fight COVID-19, says Dr Andrea Ammon.
European Health Forum Gastein

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

02 Sep 2020

The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) says it is vital that schools reopen as soon as possible despite the ongoing health pandemic.

Speaking in the European Parliament on Wednesday, the agency’s director Dr Andrea Ammon said “exposure to peer pressure” was vital for children’s social wellbeing.

Her comments come as schools across Europe began reopening this week. Schools in some other countries, particularly in Scandinavia, have already reopened.

Ammon was briefing the parliament’s influential Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee on the latest COVID-19 situation.

She told MEPs, “From the start of this, it was clear that children are rarely affected by the virus and this continues today. Less than five per cent of cases are in children below 18. When they are diagnosed children seem to have milder symptoms than adults and there have been few deaths.”

“This means though that these mild symptoms in children may go undetected.”

There were “few” documented cases of any outbreaks in schools and the evidence was “inconclusive” that it was useful to close schools.

“Some countries reopened schools early on and they did not see a rise in transmission. But nor did they reopen schools as before the outbreak began but, rather, with certain measures in places.”

“Schools are an essential part of society and children’s lives and it is vitally important that children are exposed to their peers. Should you have to take new measures, then closing schools should be the last measure you take” The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC), Dr Andrea Ammon

Ammon said these include physical distancing, increased hand washing and no mass gatherings in schools. Symptomatic teachers and pupils should also be sent home.

She told the meeting, “the closing of schools can have an impact on the wellbeing of children many of whom, of course, may not have progressed in their education (since March).”

“Schools are an essential part of society and children’s lives and it is vitally important that children are exposed to their peers. Should you have to take new measures, then closing schools should be the last measure you take.”

“But schools must also put in place the necessary measures to limit transmission.”

The ECDPC, she noted, had issued guidance for schools, in particular the role they play in transmission.

Ammon said, “The virus has not been sleeping and did not take a vacation. We are seeing this now.”

She said the current notification rate in the EU was 46 cases per 100,000, adding, “At one point it was below 15 per 100,000 and this is a rise that we have seen now for more than five weeks.”

There has been a slower rise in cases than was seen at the start in March but the actual number is almost certainly higher than the official statistics, she admitted.

The notification rate varies from two per 100,000 to 176 per 100,000.

“This rate depends on various factors, most importantly on who is being tested and how many tests are being done.”

Positive tests are particularly helpful as they can determine if a rise in notification is due to testing, explained Ammon.

Another factor is the hospitalisation rate which can be a sign that the transmission rate in a country is rising. In August, she said that there had been a “relatively small or zero” rise in hospital admissions in the EU.

Older members of the population were still most likely to be affected.

She said, “As we can see from the data, it is not a homogenous picture in the EU.”

There have, she noted, been outbreaks in occupational settings for example in meat processing plants and coal mines.

“These are usually places where teleworking is not an option and, each time, we come back to the same factors: people being in too close a proximity to each other and that is why physical distancing is vital.”

“It is hard to give specific guidance but physical distancing should be implemented where possible in a work environment.”

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