Professor David Mant: COVID-19 Early Alert Service (EAS)

Tuesday 24 November was a big day for the COVID-19 Early Alert Service (EAS) – for the first time since the beginning of term, no-one tested positive. A fantastic result given the numbers of cases we were facing a couple of weeks after students returned to University at the start of term (we had around 300 cases and 1,500 household-contacts in self-isolation in mid-October).

The number of symptomatic cases detected by EAS remains very low and Christmas Travel testing over the past week has not detected a hidden reservoir of asymptomatic cases. The vast majority of the 1,000+ cases this term has been in students, none of whom suffered serious illness. It is also clear that COVID did not spread to older members of staff – including the domestic, catering and other support staff in student-facing roles. We are aware of only 46 staff cases in total, with no known episodes of student-to-staff transmission.

Of course, testing was only a small part of containing the outbreak; the main factor was rapid isolation of affected households. The students really did self-isolate conscientiously for 14 days when one of their household became infected. College staff provided the practical help needed to make this happen very rapidly, with the COVID-19 Single Point of Contacts (SPOCs) filling the contact-tracing gap by supporting the efforts of the stretched NHS Test and Trace. And, equally importantly, departments implemented social distancing rules meticulously and very effectively.

I’m stepping down in the new year from my Dad’s Army call-up with a sense of relief that symptomatic testing with rapid household isolation did work as a containment strategy. I also feel a sense of pride in what a small, committed EAS team (a senior NHS nurse seconded from Oxford University Hospitals Trust, 30 medical students, a retired administrator and a dozen retired clinician volunteers) have achieved. However, this was only achieved with strong support from across the University, particularly from the Estates Services and Medical Sciences Division IT teams. And no testing would have been done at all without the participation of the NHS microbiology lab at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

In the new year another recently retired senior clinician will step into my role. The EAS will continue to provide the same service until widespread vaccination makes it unnecessary. It is a fine example of what is achieved when the University and NHS work effectively together.