A new case report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention adds to the growing concern over how safe it will be to reopen schools in the U.S. during the current pandemic. It details an outbreak of covid-19 at an overnight summer camp in Georgia this past June, in which hundreds of children of all ages and teenage staff members ultimately tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
According to the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the overnight camp opened on June 17, following the state’s easing of restrictions on May 31 that allowed camps to operate again. The camp held a three-day orientation for over 200 staff members and trainees, then welcomed its first batch of kids on June 21. More than 300 children in total attended the camp.
Two days into this first session, on June 23, a staff member was sent home after feeling chills a day earlier; one day later, they were confirmed to have covid-19. The camp began sending kids home that day and closed the camp entirely by June 27. On June 25, local health officials and the CDC began investigating the outbreak, advising that every camp attendee get tested and self-isolate for two weeks if positive.
Health officials were able to get information on the post-camp test results of 344 people, or 58% of everyone who attended. Of these, over three-quarters (260 people) tested positive, with high rates of infection across every age group. Among kids ages 6 to 11 with known results, 51% tested positive; as did 44% of those ages 11 to 17; and 33% of people ages 17 to 21. The median age of campers was 12, while the median age of staff members was 17.
It’s possible that some of these people may have caught covid-19 somewhere besides the camp, either before or after they visited. But that alone wouldn’t explain away the very high infection rate among campers. And if anything, it’s probably an underestimate, since there’s data missing on around half of the people who were there.
The findings, the authors wrote, “demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among persons in all age groups.”
Given that schools—the most youth-centric settings around—are weeks away from opening up this fall, the implications of this camp outbreak are alarming, to say the least. But what makes it scarier is that the camp seemed to be following most of the safety guidelines recommended by the CDC for camps. These included that everyone attending have a negative test result no more than 12 days before entering the camp; sanitizing frequently visited areas and equipment; and encouraging distancing when possible.
Perhaps crucially, though, only staff members were required to wear masks, while the campers themselves weren’t, according to the report. The camp also didn’t seem to improve their ventilation of buildings by leaving doors and windows open, as recommended. And the children participated in both outdoor and indoor activities, including “daily vigorous singing and cheering.”
Children remain at low risk for serious illness from covid-19, and the authors noted that many in this outbreak didn’t end up with symptoms. But this is only the latest evidence to suggest that children can readily spread the coronavirus. And that may not bode well for the many adults who work in schools, nor for those waiting at home for their kids.