Saliva tests for Covid-19 will help schools return to normal, top UAE official says

Abu Dhabi will roll out regular testing on children aged four to 12 widely in the coming weeks

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Regular Covid-19 saliva testing for primary-age pupils in Abu Dhabi will help schools return to relative normal soon, a top public health official said.

Tests that involve spitting into a tube were trialled in December and will now be rolled out more widely in the coming weeks.

Dr Omniyat Al Hajeri, director public health at the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, said the screening programmes will ensure young children do not need to undergo PCR nasal swabs.

The initial trial began with 400 pupils aged under-12 at a private school in the capital.

It was later rolled out to 2,000 pupils in 25 schools – including in "hot zones and clusters" of outbreaks.

We had to stop for the winter break and, given the epidemiological situation, the return of school has been delayed several times

“They were brave to be the first,” Dr Al Hajeri said at an event hosted online.

"What happened is that we had to stop for the school winter break and, given the epidemiological situation, the return to school has been delayed several times."

Saliva test effectiveness is now regarded as on par with PCR testing, according to a recent journal report.

Most private schools in the capital saw pupils return to their desks in February. For middle-year pupils, it was the first time they had stepped foot in school for 11 months.

“Given that, we will embark on the remaining hot zone school screening programme within the coming few weeks,” Dr Al Hajeri said.

Despite the hopes of a return to normal learning, schools across the Northern Emirates have shut in the past two weeks and most government-run schools nationwide remain closed.

Many private schools in Dubai opened in September, only to close and return to home learning when they were outbreaks among pupils. Most headteachers allow parents and pupils to choose whether to physically attend school or learn online.

Mobile check-ups on elderly and vulnerable

Dr Al Hajeri also said there were concerns that elderly and vulnerable people were avoiding regular check-ups and treatment due to worries about visiting hospitals.

"Many were worried about going to the hospital and given that, we have a high rate of chronic diseases," she said.

Doorstep visits by medics have been in place since early on in the pandemic.

Services include regular medical treatment and those relating to coronavirus – such as home testing.

"We put ourselves in their shoes. We asked ourselves, what do we need for our parents?" she said.

"So in order to maximise benefits, we initiated a full programme that tried to cover their needs.

"We invested in the infrastructure that we had. Taking care of the population at risk was critical,"  said Dr Al Hajeri.

“However, we realised that people were reluctant to take our calls, so we've taken that a step further and reached people where they are instead of waiting for them.

"We realised that there were cases that needed urgent communication with their health providers.”

During the pandemic, many younger people in their 40s missed regular heart scans for signs of cardiovascular disease.

“We also looked at what we could do for those above 40 and have activated screening services, such as cardiovascular screening," she said.

Phase two, for those under 40, will begin in the next few months.