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Govt rebukes Australian schools taking deadly virus precautions

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Australia’s education minister has chastised schools forcing students returning from China to stay away, as the death toll and confirmed cases there continues to spiral and the number of people awaiting the results of tests in South Australia climbs to six.

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Some private schools are isolating pupils who have recently visited China or are telling them to stay home for at least a fortnight, in an attempt to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Several boarding schools have either isolated students from mainland China in separate living quarters, or have told parents the pupils will be segregated if they do not stay away for at least a fortnight.

It comes as the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak reached 100 in China, with 2714 confirmed cases in Hubei province of the virus’s epicentre, the city of Wuhan.

A 21-year-old UNSW student became the fourth case in NSW and fifth in Australia after she tested positive on Monday.

The woman flew into Sydney Airport on Thursday on the last Australian-bound direct flight out of Wuhan, shortly before Chinese authorities ordered flights and trains out of the city be suspended in a bid to contain the virus.

She displayed no symptoms upon landing in Sydney but 24 hours later began exhibiting flu-like symptoms.

SA Health today revealed another three people in South Australia are being tested for coronavirus – but says the the likelihood they have the condition is low.

“This takes the number of South Australians waiting for coronavirus test results to six, following one person receiving negative test results this morning,” a statement said.

We continue to work closely with the Commonwealth Department of Health and Health Departments in all jurisdictions, as well as local GPs, to monitor the situation closely and provide support as required.

All of the people under investigation are being managed using standard infection control protocols.”

Ten Chinese pupils at Brisbane’s Stuartholme are being isolated to their own floor of the boarding house for two weeks and assessed regularly for illness under the advice of Queensland Health, The Australian reported.

Pymble Ladies College in Sydney and Firbank Grammar School in Melbourne advised parents to keep their children at home for at least two weeks if they had visited an affected area in China.

Kambala girls’ school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs on Monday wrote to parents advising that students in such circumstances should stay home for 14 days.

“We still request a medical clearance on return to the school but now ask for you to remain at home during the potential incubation period,” principal Shane Hogan said in an email.

A change.org petition which has garnered more than 17,000 signatures is calling for the NSW education department to tell all students who have recently returned from China to isolate themselves and stay home for two weeks.

“Individual schools make their own decisions but the advice from the Australian government is to follow our medical advice,” federal education minister Dan Tehan told ABC radio on Tuesday.

“I would say to all schools that they should be following the advice of the health department, that is the clear position of the Australian government.

“Obviously in the end they will have to answer to their parents, but also they will have to answer to state and territory governments, who have responsibility for schools.”

The federal government’s advice is that if students have returned home from China but are healthy, it is reasonable for them to attend school.

If they have been in contact with somebody with coronavirus, they should not attend school for up to 14 days.

Tehan and his department secretary have spoken to their state and territory counterparts to ensure their advice is heeded.

The coronavirus outbreak also poses a significant threat to Australian universities, both in relation to the potential spread of the virus and in economic terms.

There are roughly 164,000 Chinese students who attend university in Australia, pumping billions of dollars into the national economy.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says there’s potential for more cases.

Australian chief medical officer Professor Brendan Murphy said authorities were doing their best to contact people who had been in close proximity to those who had been diagnosed with the virus, but more positive results were inevitable.

“There’s people tested every day and there will be more that turn out to be positive,” Murphy said.

China’s National Health Commission Minister Ma Xiaowei said the country’s health officials believed patients were infectious during the virus’ incubation period, which ranges from one-to-14 days.

Until now, doctors have believed patients are only contagious when they start showing symptoms.

But Murphy expressed scepticism and said the government was seeking urgent advice from the World Health Organisation.

“The expert panels were not convinced of that at the moment. They were not convinced that evidence is being presented,” Murphy said.

“It would be very unusual because this virus is similar to the SARS and MERS viruses and they were not infectious before symptoms.

“If that were to be the case, it would have implications for contact tracing.”

Visiting Wuhan in a blue protective suit and mask, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang  today praised medics, said 2500 more workers would join them in the next two days, and visited the site of a new hospital to be built in days.

The most senior leader to visit Wuhan since the outbreak, Li was shown on state TV leading medical workers in chants of “Wuhan jiayou!” – an exhortation to keep their strength up.

On China’s heavily censored social media, officials have faced mounting anger over the virus, which is thought to have come from a market where wildlife was sold illegally.

In rare public self-criticism, Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said the city’s management of the crisis was “not good enough” and indicated he was willing to resign.

The central Chinese city of 11 million people is in virtual lockdown and much Hubei, home to nearly 60 million people, is under some kind of travel curb.

-with AAP

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