Hungary has no intention to mitigate Covid risks in schools
Zoltán Maruzsa told InfoRadio on Wednesday it was “a definite success” that schools started with classroom learning virtually everywhere in the country without hiccups last week.
He added that vaccines remain available, and anyone can ask for their shots, but a national vaccination campaign would make no sense.
Maruzsa added that some schools might introduce individual measures due to the pandemic, but given the high vaccination coverage the cabinet is not preparing for a systemic switch to distance learning.
In the first semester, there will be no mandatory temperature-taking, mask-wearing and social distancing in schools, but authorities will not prohibit mask-wearing, either, said Maruzsa, adding that “we have vaccines that is what we are relying on.”
Hungary is the only country in the region that kicked off the new school year without any restriction measure in place, while vaccination coverage is not outstanding in EU terms anymore. Experts insists that social distancing, mask-wearing, temperature-taking, testing continue to be potent weapons against the spread of coronavirus indoors where there’s a potentially high number of unvaccinated people. Maruzsa’s remarks are particularly interesting (or should we say irresponsible?) in view of the fact that children under 12 years of age are not allowed to get vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2.
The state secretary also said that by the start of the school year (1 Sept), 185,000 students have been inoculated against coronavirus, and nearly 50,000 more received their first dose in teh vaccination campaign closed last week.
We are starting this semester in a much more protected state than the previous one
, he boasted.
Maruzsa also reminded that a vaccination campaign for teachers and school staff had been carried out in April, and that they continue to have the opportunity to get their shots, even a third dose. Their vaccination coverage is 85 to 90%, he added.
He noted that once it becomes scientifically approved, vaccination will be opened also to those under 12 but there are no plans to make it mandatory.
Vaccination coverage low
There are over 590,000 children in Hungary in the 12-17 age group. According to official sources, such as Maruzsa, 185,000 of them were vaccinated before 1 September. Let’s be generous here and assume that all of them received their second dose by mid-August.
This means that less than one third (31%) of them are fully protected.
If we add those 50,000 that were administered their first dose in the last days of August, we’ll have 40% fully immunised against SARS-CoV-2 by about 5 October (three weeks between the 1st and 2nd doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s Comirnaty vaccine, plus 14 days after the 2nd dose).
Only about 57% of the Hungarian population is fully vaccinated.
As regards the vaccination of teachers, they did not share Maruzsa’s enthusiasm back in April. They were pretty pissed and scared, actually.
Everyone urges effective risk-mitigation measures in schools
With the more contagious Delta variant spreading, taking daily infection and hospitalisation numbers higher and higher every day, several key organisations have made recommendations for school settings.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has the following key messages: (Note that the majority of the studies referred to in this report were conducted prior to the emergence and widespread circulation of the Delta variant. This should be taken into account when interpreting reported study results.)
- In regions where an increasing percentage of adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 but where children are not vaccinated, it may be anticipated that in the coming months increasingly greater proportions of reported SARS-CoV-2 cases will be among children.
- Children of all ages are susceptible to and can transmit SARS-CoV-2. Cases of SARS-CoV-2 in younger children appear to lead to onward transmission less frequently than cases in older children and adults. Recent increases in the share of reported cases among children probably represents increased case ascertainment of mild cases. Children aged between 1-18 years have much lower rates of hospitalisation, severe disease requiring intensive hospital care, and death than all other age groups, according to surveillance data. The exact burden of COVID-19 and its long-term consequences in the paediatric population is still to be determined and is a priority for further research.
- The general consensus remains that the decision to close schools to control the COVID-19 pandemic should be used as a last resort. The negative physical, mental and educational impacts of proactive school closures on children, as well as the economic impact on society more broadly, would likely outweigh the benefits. Given the likely continued risk of transmission among unvaccinated children, it is imperative that there is a high level of preparedness in the educational system for the 2021/2022 school year.
- In light of circulating SARS-CoV-2 VOCs, including Delta, combinations of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) in the form of physical distancing that prevent crowding as well as hygiene and other measures to reduce transmission risks will continue to be essential to prevent transmission in school settings. Measures should be adapted to levels of community SARS-CoV-2 transmission as well as to the educational setting and age group. Implementation of measures should consider the need to provide children with an optimal learning and social environment while also reducing transmission risks.
- It is important that testing strategies for educational settings aiming at timely testing of symptomatic cases are established to ensure isolation of cases and tracing and quarantine of their contacts. When positive cases are identified, the school should be informed, contact tracing should be initiated according to local guidelines, and communication to and the testing of close contacts, ideally with rapid diagnostic tests, should be considered.
- While a measure of last resort, school closures can contribute to a reduction in SARS-CoV-2 transmission, but are by themselves insufficient to prevent community transmission of COVID-19 in the absence of other nonpharmaceutical interventions and the expansion of vaccination coverage. The effectiveness of school closures appears to have declined in the second wave as compared to the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, possibly in part due to better hygiene measures in school settings.
Since January 2021, which coincides with the start of the vaccination roll-out in the EU/EEA, children have made up an increasing proportion of weekly case numbers with the most noticeable increase among those aged 5-11 years (Figure 2). Still, children comprise a minority of all reported COVID-19 cases. As children often present with mild symptoms of COVID-19 and are less frequently tested than adults, it remains possible that this is one explanation for the under-representation of children in surveillance data.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has urged European countries to use vaccinations, ventilation, masks and distancing measures in schools to ensure that they are kept open as children return to classrooms across the continent while Covid-19 rates rise.
WHO Europe director Dr Hans Kluge called on European countries to vaccinate teachers, school staff and children aged over 12, and for “all necessary measures to be taken such that schools are open and remain open”.
Face masks, ventilation, vaccination, regular testing of children and staff, smaller class sizes where possible, physical distancing, sanitation and hand hygiene should all be employed, he said.
French and Dutch universities have set up walk-in vaccination centres for students, while in Berlin a special S-Bahn “vaccination train” provided passengers with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine as it circulated the city centre on Monday as authorities sought to boost take-up.
Italy has made its Covid-19 Green Pass mandatory in universities, meaning that students and staff must have either been vaccinated, tested negative, or be certified as having recovered from the disease. This is also compulsory for teachers and staff in schools, and later this week will be required for passengers to board long-distance buses and trains.
The WHO Regional Office for Europe and UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office called for schools to stay open and made safer by adopting measures to minimise transmission of the virus.
These measures include offering teachers and other school staff the COVID-19 vaccine as part of the target population groups in national vaccination plans, while ensuring vaccination of vulnerable populations.
In addition, children aged 12 years and above who have underlying medical conditions that significantly increase their risk for put that at greater risk of severe COVID-19 disease must be vaccinated; improvements to the school environment through better classroom ventilation, smaller class sizes where possible, physical distancing and regular testing of children and staff, are other important actions.
Cover photo: Getty Images