For several weeks earlier this summer, teen campers from across the country converged at a rural Christian camp in North Carolina for faith and fun that within weeks had turned into a superspreader nightmare.
The Wilds is billed as a “funtastic” escape, and families pay around $350 a week to send their kids to its campgrounds nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains to hike, swim, zipline, barbecue and huddle together for “a healthy portion of God’s Word,” according to descriptions on the camp’s websites.
But public health officials in Transylvania County told The Daily Beast that campers came home with both memories and cases of COVID-19, after tracking at least 76 cases nationwide back to The Wilds’ campgrounds.
Health officials say 76 cases in 17 states have been linked to The Wilds, which has served up games and Bible verses to teens during its summer sessions for more than five decades.
“There’s certainly a possibility that more cases could be identified,” Transylvania Public Health spokesperson Tara Rybka said, adding that any lingering cases were likely due to reporting delays as cases creep in from other states.
Photos posted to The Wilds’ Facebook page feature kids crowded around largely mask-free outdoor activities during faith-based sessions between June 28 and July 17.
Health officials declined to comment about whether or not the cluster painted the picture of a camp that had not vigilantly followed safety requirements amid the pandemic. Camp brochures and registration forms on The Wilds’ website don’t mention COVID-19 protocols and a list of “what to bring” to camp doesn’t mention face masks.
An immunization waiver on the camp’s website says that campers are generally required to be immunized against a host of illnesses according to state health department standards, but also provides an option for parents choosing not to immunize their children to “sign a statement releasing the camp from any liability due to exposure to any communicable disease.”
One mom, Brooke Taylor Jensen, told The Daily Beast that she had “concerns” after receiving an email from the camp notifying her that her 15-year-old son’s session had been canceled after campers and counselors tested positive for the virus in previous weeks.
“I was surprised that there was an outbreak among counselors,” Jensen said. “I guess I assumed most had been vaccinated as I wouldn’t have considered sending my son if he hadn’t been and from the sounds of it that wasn’t the case.”
Although Jensen’s son had spent three summers at The Wilds, she added that he wouldn’t be attending another session this year.
“He loves it and was very disappointed but we were not willing to risk it,” she said.
The number of infections tracing back to the camp southwest of Asheville has continued to climb since last week, when Transylvania Public Health first identified 58 cases in 14 states, WLOS previously reported.
By Thursday afternoon, the tally of positive cases included 47 staff members and 29 campers or chaperones who were not working on campus, Rybka said.
Cases stemming from the cluster have been detected in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wisconsin, the department confirmed.
County public health officials began investigating after they were notified about the first string of cases among campers who had returned home and tested positive for the virus.
“Once the camp learned about that they tested all of their staff,” Rybka said. The camp also closed for a week in the aftermath of the cluster, canceling its July 19-24 session—but camps have since resumed.
One mom, Hilary Rombkowski, said she sent three of her kids to The Wilds earlier this summer without issue.
“They had a blast and came back completely fine,” Rombkowski said. “My youngest who suffers from major anxiety enjoyed herself and is thinking of attending next summer. I have not heard anyone from our church group that attended that week come back with any sickness.”
During its one-week pause, Jensen said that, in addition to testing staff, the camp said “they were going to deep clean and quarantine those who were sick.”
In a statement on The Wilds’ website, camp officials also said they were committed to “continue to take significant precautions” to protect our staff and campers from COVID-19.
“While we have had some campers and staff either test positive or exhibit symptoms at different points this summer, we plan to continue to safely serve your camper through the remainder of the summer as the Lord allows,” the statement said.
In separate statements issued to Transylvania Public Health, the faith-based camp said that it would be testing and quarantining staff, notifying campers who attended sessions where cases were reported, canceling a session for July 19-24 and “implementing additional actions to limit the spread of COVID-19 among campers and staff.”
“As far as specific details, our recommendations for all camps is that they follow North Carolina’s guidance for summer camps,” Rybka said. That guidance recommends that, for camps where not everyone is vaccinated, unvaccinated campers and staff should quarantine for two weeks before arriving and provide proof of a negative test 1–3 days before arrival. It also mandates that camps remind people to socially distance and use face coverings.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also updated its summer camp guidance in May, advising that camps should only forgo face masks, social distancing and capacity restrictions if everyone is vaccinated. If not, the CDC encourages unvaccinated campers to wear masks indoors, in crowded outdoor settings and during close-contact activities, especially in counties with high risk of transmission.
The CDC identified Transylvania County as one of those counties grappling with a “high” level of transmission as the more infectious Delta variant tears across the country.
There have only been two other clusters of similar magnitude in Transylvania County since at least last summer—one that was traced back to a nursing home and began last August, and another with more than 80 cases at Brevard College over the course of the spring semester, Rybka said.
In North Carolina, 50 percent of residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.
The Wilds didn’t respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment about the new cases on Thursday.