Back-to-school warnings as COVID-19 and flu cases rise

As Queensland students return to the classroom - with other states and territories to follow- parents are warned about rising COVID rates.

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

Parents of school-aged children in Queensland are being reminded to watch out for symptoms and keep students at home if they show any signs of illness, including cold, flu and COVID-19, as the state officially begins Term One today.
Associate Professor Paul Griffin is the Director of Infectious Diseases at Mater Health Services in Brisbane and Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Queensland Medical School.

He says, although “so many people are a little bit sick about hearing about COVID”, he thinks it’s important that people understand that the risk is a bit higher again at the moment.

By implementing some basic measures to help prevent the spread of the illness, he says, Queenslanders can help avoid a major outbreak.

The symptoms of JN.1 are similar to those caused by other strains, which include:

  • Congestion
  • Cough
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Fever or chills
  • Headache
  • Loss of sense of taste or smell
  • Muscle aches
  • Diarrhoea
  • Runny nose
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Sore throat
  • Runny nose

“We’re certainly not suggesting we panic or spread fear – but just have that awareness that the risk is a bit higher,” he says. “If people are unwell, we do ask them not to attend work or school. People think it’s good to soldier on but unfortunately, that just spreads these things.”

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The reason for the rising rate, Dr Griffin says, is because of what he describes as an “interesting phenomenon” of two overlapping waves. Most recently, that is due to the spread of JN.1 – a highly mutated and newly dominant subvariant of the infection.

Flu cases surge in South Australia

A rise in flu cases in South Australia has also sparked health concerns as children prepare for their return to school on 29 January. The state has recorded nearly 300 flu cases in the first two weeks of 2024 – a figure almost three times higher than the same time in 2023. The high rate of flu infections comes off the back of even higher infection numbers over the Christmas period, with SA case numbers for this time of year at a five-year high.

SA Health said the spike was due to a combination of increased social activity during the holidays and the rise in international travel as overseas tourists flock to Australia for our summer season.

“It’s just really important that parents and teachers reinforce basic hygiene messages with students – washing their hands, staying away from school if the’yre sick and seeking medical attention if it’s required,” SA Health Public Health Medicine Registrar, Dr Kate Wheldrake said.

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She urged parents and teachers to reinforce basic hygiene such as hand-washing – and also reminded parents and carers to keep children home from school if they are ill.

COVID-19 numbers also remain high in the state, with nearly 2000 new cases across SA in the past week.

Asthma-affected children most at-risk

Across the country, the back-t0-school warnings from health professionals are clear – maintain careful hygiene habits and help minimise the spread by being aware of symptoms and taking preventative measures to minimise the spread.

And Queensland’s Chief Health Minister Dr John Gerrard says there is extra concern for children with asthma.

“The recent wave of Covid-19 and other respiratory viruses may help to boost immunity in the general community, however, the return to school could result in further transmission,” he says.

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“The potential for further transmission is a concern and the most important advice I can give is to keep sick children at home to stop the chain of transmission.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]