In recent weeks, the United States
has seen a string of COVID-19
outbreaks linked to summer camps in places like Texas
, and Kansas
, in what some fear is a preview of the upcoming school year.
In some cases, the outbreaks have spread beyond the camp and into the surrounding community.
The clusters have occurred as the number of newly confirmed coronavirus
cases in the United States has reversed course, increasing more than 60% in the last two weeks from an average of about 12,000 per day to around 19,500, according to data from Johns Hopkins University
In many places, the rise has been attributed to an increase in the number of unvaccinated people
and the highly contagious delta variant
Gwen Ford, a 43-year-old science
teacher from Adrian, Missouri, was cautiously optimistic when she signed up her 12-year-old daughter for the West Central Christian Service Camp in the spring after seeing the decreasing case numbers.
However, one day after the girl returned home from a week of swimming
, worshiping with friends
, and bunking in a dormitory, Ford received an email about an outbreak and later discovered that her daughter's camp buddy was infected.
“It was very nerve-wracking; it seems like we finally felt comfortable, and it happened,” Ford said, adding that her daughter eventually tested negative.
Ford stated that she intends to vaccinate her daughter, but has yet to do so due to the short time
span between the start of camp and the government's approval of the Pfizer
vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds in May.
The camp nurse
, as well as several other staff members and volunteers, were among those infected, according to a note posted on the camp's Facebook
page. Camp staff members did not respond to a request for comment.
JoAnn Martin, administrator of the public health
agency in Pettis County, lamented the difficulty in convincing people to take the virus seriously and get vaccinated.
“It’s been a challenge
since the first case,” she said. “You still have people who say it’s not real. You have people who say it’s a cold. You have people who say what’s the big deal
. You have people who say it’s all a government plot.”
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, said he isn't surprised by the outbreaks as camps reopen this summer after being closed last summer, but he has reservations that some camps "thought through all the implications of camping during COVID."
Ideally, he said, camps would require vaccinations
for adults and older campers, as well as other measures such as serving meals in shifts, putting fewer children
in cabins, and requiring anyone who has not been vaccinated to wear masks
More than 130 youths and adults tested positive for the virus in cases linked to a church
camp in the Houston
area, according to health officials. The pastor of Clear Creek Community Church in League City said the outbreak occurred in two waves, first at the camp and then when people returned home in late June.
“In some cases, entire families are sick,” pastor Bruce Wesley wrote on the church’s Facebook page.
In Illinois, 85 teens
and adults at a Christian youth camp tested positive in mid-June, including an unvaccinated young adult who was hospitalized, and some campers attended a nearby conference, resulting in 11 additional cases, according to health officials.
According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, all campers were eligible for the vaccine, but only "a handful" of campers and staff received it, because the camp did not check people's vaccination status or require masks indoors.
This month, the Leon County, Florida, health department, which includes Tallahassee, tweeted that an increase in cases there was also linked to summer camp outbreaks.
In Kansas, about 50 people have been infected as a result of an outbreak linked to a church summer camp held last month near Wichita.
The roughly 225 overnight camps and thousands of day camps run by local YMCAs are mostly open this summer, though with slightly reduced capacity, according to Paul McEntire, chief operating officer for YMCA of the USA.
McEntire said he is aware of a few cases of Y camps where people tested positive for the virus, but no cases of significant spread. He said many camps are taking precautions, such as serving meals in shifts or outside and attempting to keep children in separate groups. Most are requiring masks indoors, but he admitted it can be difficult.
“To be honest, some parents refused to send their children unless they were assured that masking was being used indoors,” he said, adding that “others took the exact opposite viewpoint.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
updated its guidance last week ahead of the school year, stating that vaccinated teachers
do not need to wear masks inside, and that a 3-foot distance between desks is not required for the fully vaccinated.
announced rules for public schools
on Monday that allow students and teachers to sit as close as they want while still requiring them to wear masks; other state and district officials have adopted a patchwork of coronavirus regulations for schools.
Summer camp outbreaks "certainly could be a precursor" to what happens when children return to school in the fall, according to Dr. Michelle Prickett, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial
Hospital in Chicago
. The outcome will depend on vaccination rates and which virus variants are prevalent, she said.
“All we have to do is stay vigilant,” Prickett said.
Schaffner believes that schools will not face similar outbreaks because they are more structured and disciplined than camps, and because most have become accustomed to making adjustments over the last year and a half, but he believes that the best way to reduce the risk is to get the majority of people vaccinated.
“Many parts of the country simply haven’t grasped this,” he said.
It could take several months for regulators to make a decision on whether to allow shots for children under the age of 12.
Meanwhile, in Tennessee
, the state's top vaccination official was fired Monday after facing criticism from Republican
state lawmakers over her department's outreach efforts to vaccinate teenagers against COVID-19, according to Dr. Michelle Fiscus. A Health Department official declined to comment.
According to emails obtained by The Tennessean, the Department of Health recently directed county-level employees to discontinue teen vaccination events and any online outreach to them.
Ford, a teacher whose daughter narrowly avoided catching COVID-19 at a summer camp in Missouri, is concerned.
“With the increase in cases, I am concerned that we will not be able to return to normalcy, and that we will have to ask people to mask and stuff,” she said, “and I have a feeling there will be a huge argument.”
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