Summer Camps Bring Ominous Virus Warning in Test Run for Schools
School children wearing face masks sit in front of a mural. (Photographer: Samsul Said/Bloomberg)

Summer Camps Bring Ominous Virus Warning in Test Run for Schools

Summer camps in parts of the U.S. are closing as children and counselors test positive for Covid-19, a troubling sign as the country debates whether schools should start in-person instruction as soon as next month.

From storied sleep-away camps in Missouri and Arkansas to city-run day programs in small-town Texas, a staple of the American summer is finding it’s not immune to the pandemic. At least seven have canceled sessions in the past four weeks, with 191 children and staffers testing positive.

The camps’ experience raises questions about one of the biggest economic challenges facing the country: how to open schools safely. Without in-person education, many parents will have to spend substantial time and energy supervising lessons.

Few officials are eager to charge ahead. California on Friday said public schools in its hardest-hit counties won’t open for on-campus classes until the virus is contained, an order that could affect more than 70% of the most populous U.S. state.

A new study from South Korea could reshape other school systems’ reopening plans. It found that people ages 10 to 19 were more likely to spread Covid-19 within a household than younger children and adults were. Children under 10 spread the virus at the lowest rate, though researchers warned that could change when schools reopen.

Children and teens, at first thought to be spared the worst of the virus, also are accounting for a rising percentage of infections in the U.S. The trend likely reflects both an increase in the ability of young people to get tested, as well as their desire to venture out after months of staying home.

‘Everything Right’

It was that sort of break Hannah Lebovits wanted for her two kids when she sent them to a day camp in Plano at the end of June. “I was thinking, ‘Well, they’re really the lowest-risk group, and even if something came up, it’ll probably be manageable,’” said Lebovits, 27, an incoming assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.

The first week was great. The second, which followed the Saturday of July 4th, was a different story. First, the camp alerted parents that a child in the 5- and 6-year-old group had tested positive for Covid-19. They decided to test the counselors. Two had the virus. By Tuesday, a 3-year-old had tested positive, and the camp was shutting down.

“They did everything right,” said Lebovits. Children were kept in pods to limit their exposure. Temperature checks were required. Drop-off was outside, and parents were kept from entering the building. Lebovits, who had enrolled her kids in school for the fall, said the experience has changed her mind on just how feasible in-person instruction will be.

“I don’t think it’s possible,” she said. “They’re going to end up home in a month.”

Camp Spread

The overnight camp Kanakuk in Missouri had 82 campers, counselors and staff test positive for the virus, according to a statement from the Stone County Health Department this month. Camp Ozark in Arkansas on July 7 announced it was moving up “closing day” due to “additional, but limited spread.” State officials said they were aware of four cases, but deferred a full count to the camp, which didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Another in Illinois closed for two weeks after four staff members developed Covid, according to KSDK television. In Wichita Falls, Texas, the city-run Camp Summer Fun closed after an employee tested positive, the Times Record News reported.

The YMCA said in a statement that it immediately closed two Georgia locations after learning that a counselor tested positive June 24. The counselor had passed the mandatory safety protocols and had tested negative before the start of camp, the group said. Kanakuk didn’t respond to requests for comment. Chabad of Plano, which operated the camp the Lebovits children attended, didn’t immediately have comment.

It’s too soon to say whether cases at summer camps reflect the rapid spread occurring in communities across the country -- or if they’re the direct result of transmission in cabins, food halls and craft rooms.

“What’s hard to tell is whether there’s transmission at the camps themselves,” said Jill Weatherhead, assistant professor of infectious disease and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Prevention Layers

The American Camp Association, which counts more than 3,100 facilities as members, said that’s a key distinction. “An outbreak by definition is different from having a case or two identified at the camp,” Tom Rosenberg, the group’s chief executive officer, said in an interview. So far, about 50 camps have had a camper or staff member test positive, he said. “It’s a pretty small fraction.”

The ACA has 10 protocols that it recommended before the summer season that Rosenberg refers to as “layers of prevention.” It includes asking families to “shelter in place” ahead of showing up to camp, quarantining positive cases and requiring masks.

“Some of the experience is showing us that the camps that have employed all of these non-pharmaceutical interventions” are successful, said Rosenberg. “But if you only employ some of them, Mother Nature is not as forgiving.”

Studies suggest that children don’t suffer from severe coronavirus symptoms as often as adults. Most show no or very mild effects. But a long list of unknowns remains when it comes to infections among the young. What are the long-term effects? How likely are they to spread it to one other -- or to their counselors, teachers or parents?

“We’re too early really to understand the long-term implications in adults, but particularly in children,” Weatherhead said. “You’re talking about young children where the bodies are still growing and the lungs are still maturing.”

Hospitals Prepare

More infected kids also means more children who end up experiencing severe symptoms. Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston has recently expanded its Covid-19 capacity to prepare for an increase in hospitalizations among the young.

“In that early experience, we had just a handful of patients, but really in the last three or four weeks our numbers have gone up quite significantly,” said Lara Shekerdemian, chief of critical care at the hospital.

“The vast majority do really well,” she said. “There is a proportion who do become sicker than that. Some require life support in the ICU, so there is a whole spectrum.”

What’s particularly challenging are cases that don’t come with symptoms. Children will be brought in to the hospital for a routine procedure, such as an appendectomy, only for their parents to learn that they’re infected, said Shekerdemian.

“The biggest danger is the people without symptoms, because they go about their daily life,” she said. “We don’t know the transmission rate.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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