COVID-19 schools data: State government responses show urgent need for better data management

Sharing public health data will be critical to the ongoing management of COVID-19, and preparing for Australia’s inevitable next pandemic. At present, if Cosmos examination of COVID-19 schools data is any example, it’s in poor shape. 

A new report from the Digital Health CRC says: “Australia lacks the national data and information governance tools to deliver the scale of healthcare transformation required to support effective responses to population health challenges such as pandemics, population ageing and personalised care. Our effective use of healthcare data, whether in support of the delivery of care or accessed for clinical research, is hampered by a lack of national harmonisation around information governance frameworks and resources to support consistent interpretation.”

Late last year the CSIRO released Strengthening Australia’s Pandemic Preparedness and among the six key elements was “Data sharing for informing response strategies.”

The proposed national “Centre for Disease Control” has issued a discussion paper which makes it clear that pandemic preparation will be strengthened if states and territories share data.

“We have gained new perspectives and learnt much during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the importance of having a surge capacity for our public health workforce, the breadth of human impact that accompanies major interventions such as lockdowns, and the vital need for timely and consistent national data,” the report says.

Read more: Scandinavian health data success

If last week’s Cosmos reports on COVID in schools is any guide, a better focus on data collection, analysis and sharing can’t come soon enough.

Cosmos reported on Victorian Health Department documents on the effectiveness of COVID-19 school measures released to us under Freedom of Information laws.

You can read the original story here.

Where is the data on air purifiers?

A number of Cosmos readers asked why the documents didn’t include much detail on the effectiveness of the 110,000 air purifiers the Victorian government purchased for schools in early 2022 at a cost of more than $113.6 million. 

Readers’ interest was piqued by the Chief Health Officer Professor Brett Sutton’s comments in March 2022 suggesting work was “underway.”

The original FoI request for the story specifically sought data on air filters, but little detail was released. 

Victoria’s Health Department declined Cosmos request for an interview with Sutton but said in an email: 

“Our investment in mitigation measures such as ventilation and free [rapid antigen tests] were critical to keeping our schools safe and open, particularly at a time when children were largely unvaccinated. COVID-19 operations for school were at all times guided by the latest health advice.” 

What about other states COVID-19 measures in schools?

Cosmos asked other state and territory health departments whether they had collected any data or undertaken analysis of their COVID-19 school measures. Only NSW provided a response.

A spokesperson for NSW Health says from early 2020 and to the end of Term 4 2021, the health department commissioned the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) to investigate COVID-19 surveillance and transmission in education settings to inform policy and response. 

These reports were made publicly available throughout the pandemic and are available on the NCIRS website.

In February 2022 NSW Health conducted a preliminary rapid investigation of the RAT school program via a questionnaire of 6,475 parents of children aged 5 – 16 who registered their positive RATs with ServiceNSW. 

The results “suggested that a focus on symptomatic testing of children and testing of their households would have identified the vast majority of cases,” the spokesperson says.

From 2022 onwards, COVID-19 management was led by the Department of Education in collaboration with NSW Health.

The NSW Health spokesperson says, the NSW Department of Education has undertaken work to assess and improve ventilation in schools. Cosmos has asked the NSW Department of Education for this information.

More on masks

Victoria was the only jurisdiction to mandate masks for primary school children at the start of the 2022 school year. Masks were required indoors for all students Grade 3 and above.

In other states, masks were encouraged or recommended for children under 12, but not required.

Cosmos revealed Victoria’s Health Department undertook an ‘Evidence Review’ of mask effectiveness (details of which were released to us under the FoI request). The review, dated August 2022, states the removal of masks in secondary schools increased the risk of COVID-19 in those students by approximately 23%. 

The Evidence Review’s analysis compared COVID-19 cases in primary school children subject to the mandate (aged 8 – 11) with secondary school children (aged 13 – 17) after the mask requirement was lifted. 

Epidemiologist Professor Catherine Bennett described the analysis as comparing “apples with lemons”.

Although not mentioned by the Evidence Review, a graph on page 58 of the FoI documents compares COVID-19 cases in masked (grades 3 – 6, ages 8-11) and unmasked (Foundation – 2, ages 5-7) primary school cohorts, with different results.

For detail see the original document.

As paediatrician, epidemiologist and vaccine researcher Professor Fiona Russell points out that data shows “5-7y (no mandate) rates are same or less than 8-11y (mandate) – w similar rates of confounders (testing, contact patterns & vaxx uptake).”

Russell adds that the weekly sawtooth pattern during the school term suggests a difference in RAT testing compared to weekends and school holidays.

Cosmos asked Victoria’s Health Department why the Evidence Review compared primary and secondary school age groups which had different numbers of children. And asked why the review did not consider its own data on masked and unmasked primary school children. The department did not provide a response.

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