Surveillance of Acute SARS-CoV-2 Infections in School Children and Point-Prevalence During a Time of High Community Transmission in Switzerland

Front Pediatr. 2021 Mar 16;9:645577. doi: 10.3389/fped.2021.645577. eCollection 2021.


Background: Switzerland had one of the highest incidence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infections in Europe during the second wave. Schools were open as in most of Europe with specific preventive measures in place. However, the frequency and transmission of acute unrecognized, asymptomatic or oligosymptomatic infections in schools during this time of high community transmission is unknown. Thereof, our aim was to pilot a surveillance system that detects acute SARS-CoV-2 infections in schools and possible transmission within classes. Methods: Fourteen out of the randomly selected sample of the Ciao Corona cohort study participated between December 1 and 11, a time when incidence rate for SARS-CoV-2 infections was high for the canton of Zurich. We determined point-prevalence of acute SARS-CoV-2 infections of school children attending primary and secondary school. A buccal swab for polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and a rapid diagnostic test (RDT) to detect SARS-CoV-2 were taken twice 1 week apart (T1 and T2) in a cohort of children from randomly selected classes. A questionnaire assessed demographics and symptoms compatible with a SARS-CoV-2 infection during the past 5 days. Results: Out of 1,299 invited children, 641 (49%) 6- to 16-year-old children and 66 teachers from 14 schools and 67 classes participated in at least one of two testings. None of the teachers but one child had a positive PCR at T1, corresponding to a point-prevalence in children of 0.2% (95% CI 0.0-1.1%), and no positive PCR was detected at T2. The child with positive PCR at T1 was negative on the RDT at T1 and both tests were negative at T2. There were 7 (0.6%) false positive RDTs in children and 2 (1.7%) false positive RDTs in teachers at T1 or T2 among 5 schools (overall prevalence 0.7%). All 9 initially positive RDTs were negative in a new buccal sample taken 2 h to 2 days later, also confirmed by PCR. Thirty-five percent of children and 8% of teachers reported mild symptoms during the 5 days prior to testing. Conclusion: In a setting of high incidence of SARS-CoV-2 infections, unrecognized virus spread within schools was very low. Schools appear to be safe with the protective measures in place (e.g., clearly symptomatic children have to stay at home, prompt contact tracing with individual and class-level quarantine, and structured infection prevention measures in school). Specificity of the RDT was within the lower boundary of performance and needs further evaluation for its use in schools. Given the low point prevalence even in a setting of very high incidence, a targeted test, track, isolate and quarantine (TTIQ) strategy for symptomatic children and school personnel adapted to school settings is likely more suitable approach than surveillance on entire classes and schools. Clinical Trial Registration:, NCT04448717.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; acute infection; children; polymerase chain reaction; rapid diagnostic test; school.

Associated data