Background: The impact of school holidays on influenza rates has been sparsely documented in Australia. In 2019, the early winter influenza season coincided with mid-year school breaks, enabling us the unusual opportunity to examine how influenza incidence changed during school closure dates.
Methods: The weekly influenza data from five Australian state and one territory health departments for the period of week 19 (mid-May) to week 35 (early September) 2019 were compared to each state’s public school closure dates. We used segmented regression to model the weekly counts and a negative binomial distribution to account for overdispersion due to autocorrelation. The models’ goodness-of-fit was assessed by plots of observed versus expected counts, plots of residuals versus predicted values, and Pearson’s Chi-square test. The main exposure was the July two-week school vacation period, using a lag of one week. The effect is estimated as a percent change in incidence level, and in slope. We also dichotomized the change in weekly counts into decreases versus increases (or no change). The proportion of decreases were then compared for each of three periods (pre-vacation, vacation, post-vacation) using Fishers exact test.
Results: School holidays were associated with significant declines in influenza incidence. The models showed acceptable goodness-of-fit. The numbers and percentages of decreases in weekly influenza counts from the previous week for all states combined were: 19 (33%) pre-vacation; 11 (92%) decreases during the vacation; and 19 (59%) decreases post-vacation (P=0.0002). The first decline during school holidays is seen in the school aged (5-19 years) population, with the declines in the adult and infant populations being smaller and following a week later.
Conclusions: Given the significant and rapid reductions in incidence, these results have important public health implications. Closure or extension of holiday periods could be an emergency option for state governments.