Are summer camps causing more COVID surges?

summer camp covid
Photo via Nenad Stojkovic/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A COVID-19 outbreak in central Illinois has people questioning the safety of youth summer camps. Eighty-five teens and adult staffers from Crossing Camp, located in Schuyler County, tested positive following a weeklong summer camp in mid-June. The camp was forced to temporarily shut down, and an upcoming camp for fourth and fifth-grade students has been postponed.

The camp was designed for eighth-grade students through graduating seniors, meaning that everyone in attendance was eligible for vaccination. Illinois state guidance on operating youth day camps recommends that everyone 12 years and older be vaccinated against COVID-19 to prevent its spread and transmission.

Despite this, only a handful of attendees had been vaccinated, according to a statement from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Not only did the camp fail to check the vaccination status of attendees, but it also did not require mask-wearing while indoors.

As a result, one unvaccinated young adult was hospitalized after contracting the virus. At least one individual from the camp went on to attend a nearby conference, and that led to 11 additional infections.

“The majority of the 85 COVID-19 cases associated with the youth camp are among teens,” Illinois Department of Public Health Director Ngozi Ezike said. “The perceived risk to children may seem small, but even a mild case of COVID-19 can cause long-term health issues. Additionally, infected youth who may not experience severe illness can still spread the virus to others, including those who are too young to be vaccinated or those who don’t build the strong expected immune response to the vaccine.”

Currently, just under 47% of the Illinois population is fully vaccinated, despite the highly transmissible delta variant’s quick spread across the United States. Young adults and teens are among the groups most reluctant to get vaccinated.

Could the Illinois incident have been avoided?

In a statement, the Schuyler County Health Department said it worked with camp staffers “to provide guidance and mitigate the situation.” Crossing Camp was following guidelines from the ​​Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the “cleaning and disinfection of their facility,” according to the statement.

The CDC released guidelines for operating summer camps in April, providing specific steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 when opening for in-person activities. The guidance, which applies to both day camps and overnight camps, stresses the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and getting vaccinated.

The agency noted that it is only safe to return to full capacity without masking or physical distancing in instances where everyone is fully vaccinated before the start of camp.

“Camp programs with any campers or staff who are not fully vaccinated should layer multiple prevention strategies to help protect the people who are not vaccinated, which includes all children under the age of 12 years,” the CDC’s guidance reads. These strategies include correctly and consistently using well-fitted masks, maintaining physical distance, handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and avoiding crowded or poorly ventilated indoor spaces.

It’s unclear whether Crossing, described as “Christ-centered camps” on the company website, will amend its health and safety procedures before welcoming back younger campers this August. 

Sources: ABC News, CNN, Illinois Department of Public Health, CDC

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