Schools and businesses must manage contact tracing as WA COVID case numbers soar

The WA Minister of Health has admitted that some organisations, including schools, are now being asked to run their own contact tracing as the number of cases continues to rise.

This week has seen a significant increase in local COVID cases, from 258 on Tuesday to 643 on Wednesday, and over 1,000 cases on Friday.

After being questioned by the opposition in parliament on Thursday, Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson said that was to be expected with the state’s current workload.

The opposition criticized the move, but some teachers welcomed the change, saying it will improve the speed of communication.

Thursday afternoon, 147 schools were actively dealing with positive cases, including 175 affected since the start of the school year.

Contact tracers under increasing pressure

Ms Sanderson told parliament that decisions had to be made about where to focus contact tracer efforts.

She said that while the contact tracing workforce was bolstered by personnel from across the public sector, it was still a limited resource.

WA Health Minister Amber-Jade Sanderson says this is how the system is designed to work.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

“Once you get to over 500 cases a day, between 500 and 1,000, it starts to get very, very difficult to contact the trace, test and isolate all of those cases,” she said.

“And so, essentially, public health contact tracers are focused on high-risk sites like aged care facilities, like hospitals, like police, like essential services.

“That’s what state-paid contact tracers will do, and these organizations like BHP, like Rio, like schools, will be able to contact their own workers and their own contacts to identify them as contacts.”

A woman wearing a headset sits in front of a computer screen.
Ms. Sanderson says the state’s contact tracing workforce can increase by “hundreds and hundreds” if needed.(ABC News: Claire Moodie)

Ms Sanderson said the move shouldn’t come as a shock or surprise, but was a “standard way to operate” during major outbreaks like the one facing WA.

“And that’s exactly what he should be doing.”

Education Minister Sue Ellery said it made sense for schools to manage part of the process.

“Schools hold attendance and class list information and, rather than providing this information to WA Health and then awaiting their close contact advice, schools will use the step-by-step guide provided by WA Health to identify the infectious period and any close contact at school,” she says.

“Schools will then inform students and staff of their obligations as close contacts using the template letters provided to them.”

Health no longer contacts school contacts

The shift appears to have happened earlier this week, with Carey Baptist College writing to parents in its Harrisdale high school community on Wednesday.

Secondary school principal Brenden Gifford explained that while the Department of Health would still specify infectious times and dates when close contacts could return to class, the school would identify who those close contacts were.

He said that when a student returns a positive rapid antigen test, “the Department of Health requires [it] is confirmed by a positive PCR”.

The school would then make decisions about who would be considered a close contact and who should self-isolate.

“This represents a significant responsibility for the College to manage,” Mr. Gifford wrote.

A school crossing traffic officer walks along a pathway in high visibility gear carrying crossing flags.
Parents should be informed as soon as possible so that arrangements can be made.(ABC News: Robert Koenig-Luck)

He said it was important to take steps to “minimize opportunities for students to be identified as close contacts”, because of the impact this could have on parents who may then have to put themselves on the line. quarantine.

In a message to parents on Thursday, Newman College principal John Finneran said families would be asked to help with the contact tracing process at that school.

“Based on the information provided by the parent, the college will identify close contacts within the school and advise these students to take a PCR test, self-isolate and await further instructions from WA Health,” did he declare.

Head Teachers’ Association Supports Change

Earlier this week, head teachers raised concerns about delays they were seeing between people testing positive and the ability to report that information.

Armando Giglia, of the WA Secondary School Executives Association, said the shift to greater involvement of schools in handling positive cases should help alleviate such concerns.

He said schools already had to make decisions about which students and staff met the definitions of close contact.

A man in a shirt, tie and jacket with pins on it smiles at the camera.
Mr Giglia says schools were concerned about slow communication before the change.(ABC News: Keane Bourke)

“Schools are just able to respond more quickly to what they would have done, instead of having to wait for Health to do the contact tracing they do,” he said.

“They can actually make choices at school and send communication much earlier.”

Giglia said responsibility for contact tracing of positive cases outside of schools still rests with the health ministry.

The government has committed $5 million to small and medium schools with “small administrative teams, to support them with administrative tasks associated with COVID-19 cases in schools,” Ms Ellery said.

“WA Health will continue to provide support to all schools if they need it and will play a leading role in schools with large numbers of vulnerable students.”

The opposition criticizes the change of responsibility

Opposition education spokesman Peter Rundle said it was unfair to leave the responsibility to schools, which already had a lot to do.

“They are already dealing with isolated classes, online learning arrangements, finding replacement teachers, canceling school camps and many other things,” he said. .

“I don’t think it’s the role of our already overstretched principals and such to have to start passing COVID tracing information to families.”

He said that indicated that state health systems were already beginning to struggle.

“We had two years to prepare the health system and everything is ready, so after a few weeks, it really surprises me.”

Mr Rundle said it would also be another responsibility for companies already strained by other factors, including verification of vaccination mandates, to take on.

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