The Next Scary Source of COVID-19 Outbreaks May Be Summer Camp
“The worst-case scenario would be that children who are asymptomatic but positive for COVID-19 return to communities before they become spreaders,” one expert said.
Camps from Florida to New York to Texas have teased plans to open this year, despite the still-raging pandemic. But is it even safe to send kids to the land of kayaking and Sloppy Joes?
Public health experts suggest that, with the right precautions, it could be, and that the psychological benefits for young people—not to mention their parents—might be massive after so much isolation. But the risk of sending millions of kids into prolonged close contact with large groups of people—and then potentially returning an army of infected but asymptomatic campers home—was almost inescapable.
“Though children aren’t at high risk for severe disease, we know that they play a huge role in transmitting respiratory illnesses,” said Diana Cervantes, director of the epidemiology program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center School of Public Health. “Summer camps are a huge issue, and then you brace yourself for the fall.”
The novel coronavirus has for the most part spared children, only causing mild symptoms in the vast majority of those who test positive. Children represent only 2 percent of confirmed coronavirus cases, and the CDC reported last month that only three people younger than 18 had died of the virus in the United States. Still, in both the U.S. and Europe, doctors recently reported a concerning series of cases in which some children who appear to have had COVID-19 develop symptoms including inflammation in the blood vessels, eyes, and heart, according to The New York Times.
Though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines specific to child care services and schools, it hasn’t yet provided any for camps. The American Camp Association said in a statement on Tuesday that many of its 3,100 member camps were waiting on that guidance, as well as input from state and county public health authorities.
Some camps have already decided to cancel their summer programs. But large-scale closures could have ripple effects: Summer camps are an $18 billion industry, serving about 20 million children and families per year, according to the ACA, which noted member camps include at least one million seasonal staff members.
Camp Mystic For Girls and Camp La Junta For Boys, both based in Hunt, Texas—a state that was plowing ahead with an aggressive reopening plan to salvage its economy despite a surge in COVID-19 cases this week—have said they’re still planning to greet campers. Details ranging from dates to safety guidelines and potential new capacity numbers were still being hashed out.
“We want to know for sure exactly what the governor’s team will require before we announce our plans and update our camp dates,” said a message posted on Camp Mystic’s website. “We are very confident that we will be having camp this summer.”
The post indicated the camp was working with others in Texas “and giving our input to the governor’s team on establishing summer guidelines.” (Camp Mystic did not respond to requests for comment from The Daily Beast.)
Camp La Junta, meanwhile, said it continued to monitor updates on COVID-19 while preparing for the “best summer ever,” since “now, more than ever, our boys need the opportunity to run around, connect with friends, be in the great outdoors and know that life will get back to normal,” according to a message on its site. The camp features horseback-riding, scuba-diving, nature crafts, sailing, and more.
When reached by phone, an employee at La Junta said that—while the camp’s website says it “expects to have camp as planned!”—the directors were still waiting on the aforementioned safety guidance before making any final decisions.
After several weeks of lockdowns and quarantines and closed schools, it’s easy to see the vast appeal of sending kids to the woods for adventure.
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“Young people have been affected quite disproportionately through the effect on their education and social lives,” said Dr. Adrian Hyzler, the chief medical officer for Healix International, which provides medical information to organizations whose clients travel internationally. But he acknowledged that “they are still vectors of transmission to more vulnerable members of their household and social groups.”
Indeed, public health experts remain skeptical that it would be possible to convene children in close proximity and in large numbers without risking an outbreak—either at the camp itself or once they return home. Congregate settings, like long-term care facilities and prisons, are dangerous because they involve people living closely together with sustained proximity, Cervantes noted, arguing that summer camps are risky for the same reason.
Irwin Redlener, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University and a renowned expert on U.S. readiness for pandemics, agreed that the stakes were high.
“The worst-case scenario would be that children who are asymptomatic but positive for COVID-19 return to communities before they become spreaders,” said Redlener, painting a picture of dozens of children returning to far-flung cities and igniting new outbreaks, beginning with their families.
“But there’s ways around those challenges,” he added. “Upon leaving the camp, you could make sure children are tested—all of them.” And the public health concern for the spread of disease must be balanced against the very real psychological benefits to children “who depend on camp, who live in difficult conditions and in poverty in urban situations,” Redlener said. “Day camps and summer camp experiences are very critical for those kids to be able to get away, to interact socially with friends, and really just get into the world. Those experiences are life-changing.”
“Can it be done safely? I think so,” he concluded. “We would want counselors and employees at the camp to test negative and for campers to go through thorough clinical screenings.”
Still, given testing and other pandemic surveillance gaps nationwide, some major camps saw little choice but to call the season off.
Frost Valley YMCA, in Claryville, New York, for instance, announced on Tuesday that it won’t be offering overnight or day camp this summer.
“After many long days and sleepless nights, our staff and I worked to find solutions to every possible contingency, but ultimately the uncertainties are still too great too late in the season,” said CEO Jerry Huncosky.
Texas camps are far from the only ones considering staying open, however.
Mark Transport, the owner of Crestwood Country Day Camp on Long Island and the president of the Long Island Camps and Private School Association, said he was operating “under the assumption that we will be open.” He added that he was in talks with staff to implement temperature screenings, stricter cleaning schedules, and any other recommended protocols from the CDC and local health authorities, when they come down.
“We’re certainly not going to compromise on safety,” Transport said. “If we felt, as an industry, that there was not a safe way to open camp, I don’t think that camps will open.”
He added, “If you want to open the economy, it’s impossible to do that without a place to put your kids.”
Others, like Camp Woodmont in Cloudland, in Georgia, have announced plans to go ahead with their face-to-face summer programs. But camp director and owner Alyson Gondek told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that she still “can’t make any promises” to her dozens of staff members until she knows for sure what the guidelines and recommendations will be.
Others have said they are still weighing their options. Habonim Dror Camp Moshava, in Maryland, announced staff were “choosing to remain optimistic and plan for an incredible Mosh camp experience” but awaiting more information from the CDC and local health authorities before making a final decision. The same was true for a number of major camps in Florida, according to The Miami Herald, where some were considering reducing capacity or preparing virtual classes.
In Michigan, the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp near Traverse City opted for its 93rd season to take place exclusively online, replacing the bonding time that 2,800 kids and teens from 50 countries normally experience in their sandy cabins on a lake with daily “virtual cabin” social activities.
As parents and health officials try to navigate the situation, Hyzler said that well-run and conscientious camps are “a good idea and a reasonable step forward.” But he added the caveat that age and location matter. The children participating in such congregate settings must be old enough and “responsible and aware” enough to “fully appreciate the new normal,” he said.
“Any symptoms should be treated as with anyone—with self-isolation and calling the medical provider,” added Hyzler, who noted that parents should make sure they’re satisfied with a given camp’s attention to such details.
At least in Texas, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi—an Austin-based primary care doctor, the associate chief medical officer at People’s Community Clinic, and a candidate for Texas’ 10th Congressional District—felt parents should start thinking about alternatives.
“We simply do not have enough data to make an informed decision on the viability of summer camps for this year,” he told The Daily Beast of camps with June start dates.
In order to do so safely, the state needs expanded testing, coordinated contact tracing, and well-stocked personal protective equipment, Gandhi argued. Critics of Texas. Gov. Greg Abbott have said he lifted his state’s stay-at-home order too soon, risking lives by reopening businesses while case counts were still increasing every day. The state had 33,912 cases and 925 related deaths as of Wednesday afternoon.
“There is a safe way to open camps,” said Gandhi, “but to do so requires Texas to meet certain key public health benchmarks that have so far gone unmet.”