US Summer Camps Hit with COVID-19. Are Schools Next?

29 July 2021

The U.S. has seen COVID-19 outbreaks linked to summer camps in recent weeks in states such as Texas, Illinois, Florida, Missouri and Kansas. Some fear the same thing could happen during the upcoming school year.

In some cases, the outbreaks have spread from the camp to the larger community.

The high-infection areas have appeared as the number of new cases of the coronavirus in the U.S. has been rising. The cases have jumped more than 60 percent over the past two weeks from an average of about 12,000 a day to around 19,500. That information comes from Johns Hopkins University.

The rise in many places has been blamed on too many unvaccinated people and a new version of the virus called the delta variant.

Camp counselor Mia Porche wipes down plastic barriers used to distance children during lunch at a daycare summer camp in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, May 19, 2020.
Camp counselor Mia Porche wipes down plastic barriers used to distance children during lunch at a daycare summer camp in Richardson, Texas, Tuesday, May 19, 2020.

Gwen Ford is a 43-year-old science teacher from Adrian, Missouri. She was hopeful when she saw the dropping case numbers in the U.S. during the spring. So she signed up her 12-year-old daughter for the West Central Christian Service Camp.

But one day, Ford got an email about an outbreak and then learned that her daughter's camp friend was infected. Ford said it made her extremely worried. But, she explained, a test showed her daughter did not have the virus. Ford said she plans to get her daughter vaccinated. But she did not have enough time between the start of the camp and the government's May approval of the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.

A note written on the camp's Facebook page said that the camp nurse and several other workers and volunteers were infected. Employees at the camp did not return a call from the Associated Press for comment.

JoAnn Martin is an official from the public health agency in Pettis County, an area in central Missouri. She is disappointed about how hard it has been to get people to take the virus seriously and get vaccinated.

"You have people who still say (the coronavirus) is not real. You have people who say it is a cold. You have people who say, ‘What is the big deal?' You have people who say it is all a government plot."

Dr. William Schaffner is an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He said he is not surprised by the outbreaks at camps. He believes some camps did not consider the effects of opening after being closed last year.

The best situation would be for camps to require vaccinations for adults and for campers who are old enough. Camps can also take measures like serving meals in shifts, putting fewer campers in cabins, and making unvaccinated campers wear face coverings indoors.

In the Houston, Texas area, health officials said more than 130 children and adults tested positive for the virus in connection with a church camp. The religious leader of Clear Creek Community Church in League City said the outbreak happened in two parts. First, it was at the camp and then when people returned home in late June.

In Illinois, health officials said 85 teens and adults at a Christian youth camp in mid-June tested positive. One unvaccinated young adult went to the hospital. Some people from the camp attended a nearby conference, leading to 11 more cases.

The Illinois Department of Public Health said all the campers were able to get the vaccine. But only "a handful" of campers and workers had received it. The camp did not ask if people had been vaccinated and did not require face coverings indoors, the department said.

In Florida, the health department in Leon County, which includes the city of Tallahassee, reported an increase in cases. On Twitter this month, the department said the increase was partly linked to summer camp outbreaks.

And in Kansas, about 50 people were infected in an outbreak linked to a church summer camp held last month close to Wichita.

In other places, the situation is better. Nearly 225 overnight camps and thousands of day camps that are run by the Young Men's Christian Association, known as the YMCA, are mostly open this summer. But they are not accepting as many people, said Paul McEntire. He is chief operating officer for the YMCA, a national nonprofit organization.

McEntire said he knows of a few cases of YMCA camps where people tested positive. But there is not a big spread, he said. He said many camps are taking measures such as serving meals in shifts or outside. They also are trying to keep young people in separate groups. Most are requiring face coverings indoors, but he noted that can be difficult.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has just updated its guidance. It suggests that all students, teachers, workers and visitors at K-12 schools wear face coverings indoors. The CDC says it does not matter whether the person is vaccinated or not.

Summer camp outbreaks may predict what will happen when children return to classrooms in the fall, said Dr. Michelle Prickett. She is a heart specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The effects will depend on vaccination rates and which virus variants are widespread, she said.

Vanderbilt's Schaffner said schools may not face similar outbreaks because they usually have more restrictions than camps. But he said the best way to reduce the risk is to get most people vaccinated. Schaffner said people in some parts of the country still do not understand this.

For example, in Tennessee, the top vaccination official lost her job after Republican state lawmakers criticized her department's efforts to vaccinate teens.

The Tennessee Department of Health ordered county workers recently to stop COVID-19 vaccination events aimed at teens and to stop online outreach to them. That information was reported by The Tennessean newspaper.

I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Jill Robbins.

The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

outbreak –n. a sudden start or increase in fighting or disease

variant –n. something that is different in some way from others of the same kind

nurse –n. a person who is trained to care for sick or injured people and usually works in a hospital or with doctors

shift –n. a group of people who do some activity together

positive –adj. showing the presence of a germ or infection

K-12 –adj. relating to schools from kindergarten to 12th grade