Closure of St Mark’s School – Public Health Dorset gives reassurance about COVID-19 in Swanage

Following the surprising and shocking news that St Mark’s CE School in Swanage is to close for two weeks, after a staff member tested positive for COVID-19, the Director of Public Health Dorset, Sam Crowe has spoken to Swanage.News to reassure parents that swift action is the best course of action to stop the spread of the virus in Swanage.

While many St Mark’s parents are understandably extremely frustrated by the news that the school is to close after only being back for one day, according to Public Health Dorset, the action had to be taken to ensure the best interests of the teachers, staff and pupils.

What happened at St Mark’s School?

  • Thursday 3rd and Friday 4th September 2020 – Member of staff attends training day with other staff. The person subsequently feels unwell and takes a test for COVID-19.
  • Monday 7th September 2020 – Pupils go back to school for the first time in months but the unwell member of staff does not go into school, while awaiting test results, so children are not in contact with the unwell member of staff.
  • Tuesday 8th September 2020 – Member of staff gets a positive COVID-19 test result and informs the school, who informs Public Health Dorset. Risk assessment is completed, involving all parties and the joint decision is made that all members of staff who came into contact with the person who tested positive must self isolate for 14 days. This means that there are not enough members of staff to run the school, so it is forced to close.

The Director of Public Health Dorset, Sam Crowe, speaking after the St Mark’s announcement, spoke about the incident and answered questions about coronavirus in Swanage and the wider Dorset Council area. He said:

“I can completely understand that closing the school may come as a shock to parents but equally I think people should be reassured that the process works well. We are being very, very cautious. The priority in this instance is to go with the public health action to limit the transmission of cases.

“Once Public Health England completed the risk assessment, they were very clear that a number of staff needed to self-isolate because they had potentially been in contact with the positive case.

“So it’s not that there’s an ongoing risk to children of COVID-19 within the school but because of the number of teachers who need to self-isolate and other staff in the school – it’s only a small school – it becomes very difficult to operate and open the school safely.”

St Marks School

Have the staff been tested or are they going to be tested?

“The guidance at the moment is that if you have been in contact with a positive case, you don’t need to be tested and the reason is that, unless you test at the right time, the test can return a false negative result. So what we want to do is to avoid the risk that people are tested and then think they are ok – that they don’t have coronavirus and then they develop symptoms a couple of days later.

“So the current advice is that if you have been contacted by Public Health England or contacted by NHS Test and Trace and told that you need to self-isolate because you’ve been a contact of a case, then you need to start that 14 days self-isolation period.

“You only need a test if you develop symptoms or if anyone in your household develops symptoms, then they would also be asked to contact Test and Trace and have to be tested and go through the tracking procedure.

So if anyone else is in the situation, where they’ve come in contact with someone who has tested positive, like the players at Swanage Town and Herston Football Club, they still have to self isolate for 14 days, even if they have subsequently had a test and it’s come back negative?

“Having a test is not a ‘get out of jail free’ card. Just because you’ve got a negative test, doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t have coronavirus or aren’t about to develop it, so we always go back to the contact and ask what is the likely exposure?

“If the risk assessment shows that there’s a high probability that you’ve been exposed, you’ll be told to self-isolate and we just encourage people to really stick to that guidance because that’s how we break the chain of transmission.”

When coronavirus was at its peak in April nationally, we heard of very few cases and those that we did hear about were mainly people who worked at a hospital. Now that children are going back to school and people are being told to go back to offices, we’re hearing of a lot more cases. So what is the picture in Swanage?

“There’s a number of things going on. There are definitely more cases happening across both Dorset Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council areas, compared with July and August. Particularly towards the end of August and beginning of September we’re seeing more positive COVID-19 cases.

“It’s important to remember that there are many more tests now being undertaken, compared to the earlier phase of the pandemic. So initially, testing was very much focused on people who were sick enough to require hospital or primary care support, so they had more serious symptoms.

“So earlier in the pandemic we may well not have been picking up all of the cases of COVID-19 and that would have applied to Dorset as well.

“Now that we’ve got widespread access to testing, we’re picking up more symptomatic cases and as more people are travelling, more people are coming back from areas and testing positive – we’ve definitely seen that pan out locally. I think about half of our cases in the last few weeks have been connected with travel.

“We’re also seeing more cases in a younger group – so the demographics may be changing a bit – we’ve definitely seen more positive cases in younger people opposed to older people.”

So what should people do that have underlying health problems and have been shielding but would like to get out more now?

“It’s obviously down to the individual. I guess what I would say is that some of the outbreaks that have happened in the south west and other parts of England, very clearly show that transmission happens when people don’t stick to the advice on social distancing, or perhaps they adhere to that in the workplace but when they are out of work mode, people relax a bit and kind of forget about the importance of keeping socially distanced.

“So I wouldn’t say that there are high levels of the virus circulating in Swanage but nevertheless people need to understand that the virus is still there and that’s why we continue to observe the public health guidance – keep your distance and if you can, maintain a two metre distance.

“You need to wear a face covering in an enclosed space and you need to limit the amount of time that you’re spending with people and if you can’t, you must socially distance. It’s also really important to keep washing your hands.

“Those are the things that protect us from contracting the virus and it’s up to the individual to make their minds up as to whether they think it is safe to go out or not, but if you’re still observing those measures, the risk is probably quite low.”

So after the coronavirus case at St Mark’s, can parents be confident about sending their children back to the other schools in Swanage?

“Schools have worked really well to implement the guidance. They’ve worked very closely with the public health team and also we’ve had great support from Public Health England. It is a big change – schools opening up – but what’s important from my perspective is that we know what to do quickly if we do have a situation again, like we had at St Mark’s.

“It’s really important we react quickly and I’m satisfied that we did that today and I think it was really good that the school worked with us and we were able to get the communication out very quickly. So I think as long as we are able to respond in that way and continue to take these public health measures quickly, I hope that people will still be confident about going back to school.”

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