Teachers not at elevated risk of coronavirus, expert says

Pupils arriving at school (PA Wire)
15:01pm, Thu 07 Jan 2021
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Teachers are not at increased or elevated risk of contracting coronavirus, an expert has said among calls from the profession to be considered a priority for vaccines.

The NASUWT teachers’ union is calling for all teachers and education staff to be prioritised for the Covid-19 vaccine to save lives and help get children back to school.

It argues that it is in the “national interest” for teachers to be prioritised in the roll-out of the vaccination programme.

Teachers are not particularly vulnerable - that's the key thing here

However, Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology, University of Edinburgh, told the PA news agency there is no data to suggest teachers are at greater risk.

Speaking as an independent researcher, and not in an advisory role, he said: “In terms of whether teachers are at risk, there’s been a number of studies on this now and teachers, as a profession, are not at more risk than many other professions, are certainly not at elevated risk either of getting infected in the first place or having a bad outcome of infection.”

He added that teachers who are at high risk will already be covered by the priority lists.

Prof Woolhouse said that, while children are infectious, most do not show symptoms and most experts consider children to be about a third as infectious as adults – depending on the age of the child.

He added: “When infections do occur in people in schools, whether they’re staff or students, that does not necessarily mean they got the infection in the school environment.

“So it’s perfectly possible for a teacher or school child to get infected outside the school.

“Every teacher that has turned positive in the UK, in recent months, not all of those teachers will have got infected in the school environment.

“If they do get infected in the school environment, the evidence is, certainly from Scotland, that they’re at least as likely to be infected from another teacher, as they are from a student.

“So you have to think about where the infection is actually being acquired.”

Prof Woolhouse told PA that, if vaccinating teachers was to become part of the strategy, then it would make sense to do so fairly quickly if the aim was to have them protected before the end of the February half term as it takes time for the vaccine to offer protection.

However, he added that this would mean potentially vaccinating teachers and staff over others on the priority list.

Prof Woolhouse said: “Teachers are not particularly vulnerable – that’s the key thing here.

“They are not exceptionally vulnerable, and if they are, they will be on the priority list already.

“The data suggests that the teachers are not at elevated risk compared to other professions.

“And they’re not at elevated risk of infection, they’re not at elevated risk of severe disease.”

However the NASUWT said giving teachers the jab is essential both to help protect teachers and their pupils but to allow the country to move to a situation where children are back in schools and colleges.

The calls for teacher vaccination have been echoed across the profession.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “We believe that education staff should be included in the vaccination programme at the same time as NHS and social care staff.

“This will both keep them safe when teaching in schools and colleges and make sure that education is less disrupted when schools can be safely re-opened beyond key worker and vulnerable children again.”

Dr Lucy Wenham, lecturer of education at the University of Bristol, told PA she strongly believes teachers need to be urgently considered as a priority for vaccination.

She explained: “There is not enough discussion about the scientifically-evidenced dangers of all inside meetings, or of aerosol spread.”

Dr Wenham added: “The vastly increased risk of sustained indoor contact is clear.

“Teachers, even with smaller groups of vulnerable and key-worker related students only, are unarguably at greater risk.

“The idea of adding to this group size by reclassifying students without laptops as vulnerable and thus increasing the numbers attending school in so-called lockdown, is ludicrous.

“To reduce R schools need to be as near fully closed as possible and being too cheap to pay for more laptops is not the answer.

“The Government needs to step up and support teachers and students.”

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) currently puts older adults in a care home and care home workers, those aged 80 and over and health and social care workers, those 75 years of age and over, and all those who are 70 years of age and over and clinically extremely vulnerable individuals at the top of the priority list.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chairman or JCVI, said: “The JCVI’s advice on Covid-19 vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible.

“As the single greatest risk of death from Covid-19 is older age, prioritisation is primarily based on age.

“It is estimated that vaccinating everyone in the priority groups would prevent 99% of deaths, including those associated with occupational exposure to infection.”

Prof Woolhouse said that, while he did not know how the next phase of the vaccination programme was being worked out, it could take one of three approaches.

These could include continuing to go down the list by age, choosing the age groups that contribute most to transmission, or listing according to occupation.

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