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FOCUS: Scientists discuss covid stigma and unmasked school trip

FOCUS: Scientists discuss covid stigma and unmasked school trip

Wednesday 15 December 2021

FOCUS: Scientists discuss covid stigma and unmasked school trip

Wednesday 15 December 2021

Newly published minutes of the Government's scientific advisers highlight their concerns about the dipping rate of vaccination, and the belief that one cluster was caused by children not wearing masks on a school trip.

They also reveal communication plans to address so called 'vaccine hesitancy,' and worries about the mental health of people who may have transmitted covid on to others.

Express looks further at what the Scientific and Technical Advisory Cell (STAC) had to say during three meetings in October...

4 October (74th meeting)

The stigma of being a potential cause of transmission

The meeting discussed the potential mental health impact of being perceived as the source of a covid cluster.

The minutes record that Associate Medical Director for Primary Prevention and Intervention, Dr Adrian Noon, said that he had spoken to GP colleagues over the weekend, who had reported to him that children and young people had reported feeling both “low level anxiety and guilt” that they had potentially infected others, especially with regard to their friends.

Steve Martin Influence at Work.jpeg

Pictured: STAC's behavioural science adviser Steve Martin gave presentations to the committee in October.

They add: “Dr Noon expressed the need for the Cell to be mindful of this mental health impact and this concern was duly noted by the Cell.”

In the meeting, Dr Graham Root, an epidemiologist acting as an adviser to STAC, “echoed the concerns felt among students and teachers with the feelings of anxiety that were evident and expressed concern for the resulting impact that this could have upon the education of young people.”

Summarising the issue, Chair Professor Peter Bradley, the Director of Public Health, said his view was that the topic should be re-considered by the Cell at a future meeting, and that the discussions on this point during the meeting had been “most helpful."

Dr Noon added that he thought, ideally, covid would one day be treated as on a parallel with flu.

‘Leave no islander behind’

The meeting was told by behavioural scientist Steve Martin of Influence at Work that Jersey had achieved an “impressive” vaccine uptake but despite this “commendable performance”, it was noted that progress in this regard had slowed of late.

The minutes read: “To ensure that Jersey’s vaccination programme ‘left no islander behind’, the Cell agreed that it was important that it understood both the inhibitors and enablers to vaccination. 

“It was therefore proposed that primary research was undertaken within the island to better understand the reasons for vaccine hesitancy and how potential recipients could be worked alongside and persuaded to take up the continuing vaccine offer. 

“It was anticipated that primary research would explore findings for a Jersey- specific context, with it being noted that there was a limited availability of demographics for the unvaccinated cohort in Jersey, but younger age groups were a known target audience. 

“As an example, the 18-39 years of age group was known to represent 73 percent of the outstanding group of unvaccinated Islanders.”

A five- to six-week research project was agreed, to be carried out by local agency 4insight. Its terms of reference included collecting common stories and narratives to shape future a communications plan.

The meeting heard that those remaining unvaccinated were likely to be from within the following groups:

  • younger age groups;
  • those in lower income bands;
  • those who were unemployed;
  • those who were non-native speakers of the native language of the location performing the vaccinations;
  • those who perceived themselves to be at lower or no risk from the effects of contracting covid.

“The Cell considered that the established evidence demonstrated that no ‘silver bullet’ existed to overcome factors relating to vaccine hesitancy. 

“Rather, it was agreed that the Government would instead need to rely on ‘marginal gains’ from several interventions, using learning from successful vaccine programmes elsewhere.

“Mr Martin described the challenge ahead as being ‘one of persuasion’, noting that those who doubted the efficacy of vaccines were more willing to accept narratives of beliefs being changed than they were to believe facts without a story around them.

Is a single-swab test the answer?

Dr Noon reported back from a weekend of working in A&E, where a single swab test given to young children who had presented with viral symptoms had managed to isolate RSV and other viruses, as well as covid. 

He described this as “very helpful” and asked if this single swab test could also be provided in areas such as general practice, in order to assist with the diagnosis of covid and other viral infections. 

It was agreed that this matter would be raised with Deputy Medical Officer of Health, Dr Ivan Muscat, who was absent from the meeting, when he returned.

11 October 2021 (75th meeting)

Long Covid latest

The Cell noted that 199 patients were currently recorded in the EMIS clinical IT system as suffering from Long Covid. Of these, 104 had ongoing symptomatic Covid and 102 had post COVID-19 syndrome, but it was recalled that these were not mutually exclusive and one individual could have both codes assigned to them. The Cell was informed that more females than males were suffering from Long Covid, with the majority aged in their 40s.

Don’t forget to deep clean …

During the meeting, Dr Graham Root, an epidemiologist acting as an adviser to STAC, suggested that the Covid Safe Team should be encouraging businesses to adopt good ventilation practices, rather than instructing them to undertake ‘deep cleans’, as there was little evidence that fomites (objects or materials which carry infection, such as clothes and furniture) were a source of transmission. 

Former Director of Environmental Health and now consultant Stewart Petrie added that deep cleaning was beneficial in the autumn, as the Norovirus season approached.

A lukewarm reaction to Molnupiravir

The drug, produced by pharmaceutical giant Merck, was initially heralded as a potential "gamechanger" for covid but full clinical-trial data has showed lower-than-expected efficacy.

Back in October, STAC expressed caution over the oral medication. 

Minutes state: “Although promising, the reported findings from Merck were based on interim analysis only and might differ on final completion. As a consequence, it was recommended that it should be monitored with interest, mindful of potential limitations and noting that it had not been approved for use by any regulatory agency.”

25 October 2021 (76th meeting)

No masks on a school trip

Discussing recent clusters, the meeting heard that a “school-based group” may not have been wearing masks on a coach trip and senior policy officer Dr Clare Newman “indicated that was the only strong factor the Cell was aware of in terms of the spread of covid-19 in an educational setting”.

As the omicron variant had not materialised by then, the Cell discussed if there would be a large wave of covid infections over the winter but it concluded that it couldn’t be certain.

The meeting also decided to explore the option of vaccinating children in their schools, something that was subsequently agreed and announced on 19 November.

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