31 Children Test Positive for Coronavirus at Summer Camp (Published 2021) (2023)


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The outbreak at Camp Pontiac in Columbia County, N.Y., occurred among children too young to be vaccinated. No children were seriously ill.

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By Michael Gold

The outbreak at Camp Pontiac, a sleep-away camp in upstate New York, started in the girls’ dormitories. Nurses, worried that young campers were showing symptoms of Covid-19, began administering tests. Last Saturday, one came back positive.

More would quickly follow: As of Thursday morning, 31 of the camp’s 550 campers had tested positive for the coronavirus, said Jack Mabb, the health director of Columbia County, where the camp is located.

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None of the children were seriously ill from the virus, Mr. Mabb said.

The outbreak, coming as the highly transmissible Delta variant spreads across the country and Covid-19 cases rise in New York State, is emblematic of the challenges that arise when a huge population cannot be vaccinated, even as it highlights the effectiveness of vaccines.

The virus reached the campgrounds, though all but a handful of Camp Pontiac’s staff and its children ages 12 and over are vaccinated. All 31 children who tested positive for the virus are under the age of 12, making them too young to receive vaccines in the United States, Mr. Mabb said.

With it still unclear when younger children will be eligible for the vaccine — President Biden said this week that he believed authorization would come soon — Mr. Mabb said he was worried that the outbreak may be a portent for the widespread return of in-person learning this fall.

“I think that when the kids go back to school, we could see this, and I’m concerned about that,” Mr. Mabb said.

So far, the outbreak does not appear to have spread from Camp Pontiac to the surrounding community, and there do not appear to be any so-called breakthrough infections among vaccinated individuals.

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The New York outbreak is one of a spate of recent camp-related Covid-19 clusters across the United States this summer. In Texas, more than 125 teenagers and adults at a church-run camp tested positive after an indoor event. Kansas’ health department has reported multiple outbreaks tied to camps in and around the state. Illinois reported more than 80 cases, most of them among teens, at a summer camp there.

Those outbreaks, by and large, have come in states with lower vaccination rates than New York State, where 74 percent of adults and 62 percent of all residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine.

Susie Lupert, the executive director of the American Camp Association of New York and New Jersey, said that large outbreaks at camps in those two states were not common.

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“We have not heard of outbreaks,” Ms. Lupert said. “Certainly, there have been some positive cases here and there which have been easy to contain. And the camps continue to operate as they planned to.”

New York’s Health Department did not respond to a request for comment. But several county health departments said they had seen few to no cases tied to camps.

Nancy McGraw, the health director in Sullivan County in the Catskills, said the county had seen fewer than 10 camp-related cases since June. Dan Torres, the assistant deputy county executive in Ulster County, said the county had been “lucky this far.”

New Jersey’s Health Department has been notified of six camp-connected outbreaks, a spokeswoman said. All of them — three in Bergen County, two in Burlington County and one in Essex County — were smaller than the Camp Pontiac outbreak; only 16 camp-related cases had been reported in the state so far.

After being forced to close in 2020, sleep-away camps in New York were given the green light to open in May. Parents, eager to provide their children with a semblance of normalcy after a school year marked by remote learning and social isolation, eagerly enrolled their children.

Still, with the pandemic remaining a threat, camps were required to adhere to extensive state guidelines on mask-wearing, social distancing and testing, and they were required to submit safety plans that detailed how they would handle potential outbreaks.

Mr. Mabb, the county health official, said that Camp Pontiac had submitted such a plan. Campers and staff were tested for the virus before they arrived at camp, and the camp had been working closely with the Health Department since it became aware of the outbreak.

Camp Pontiac, located in Copake, N.Y., sits about 110 miles north of New York City on 150 acres at the foot of the Berkshires. Both boys and girls ranging from ages 7 to 16 attend the camp, and about half of them are younger than 12 years old. The camp lasts for seven weeks and costs between $12,200 and $13,550, according to the camp’s website.

The camp administration said in a statement that it was keeping in touch with the families of campers and noted that it was “owned and operated by two physicians that are at camp during the summer.”

It did not respond to further questions, but it forwarded a letter that it sent to parents saying that it had decided to test all unvaccinated campers for the coronavirus.

The camp will not close despite the outbreak, Mr. Mabb said.

Instead, more than 100 children — the 31 who tested positive and more than 80 others who were close contacts — had been asked to quarantine or isolate.

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Most of the campers hail from metropolitan New York City, and their parents had come to pick them up, though one, Mr. Mabb said, sent a private jet. When their quarantine is done, they will be allowed to return to camp.

Fewer than 10 children from more distant states were being held in an isolation area at the camp. “Obviously, you can’t put them on an airplane, and you can’t put them on the bus,” Mr. Mabb said.

Dr. Philip Zachariah, an epidemiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and a pediatrics professor at Columbia University, said that parents worried about transmission risk at camps should ask directors for clear policies on vaccinations and masking.

But he said that the precautions that camps had already been asked to take in the state were likely to keep children safe, especially as vaccinations rise.

Dr. Zachariah also noted that children who contracted the virus usually were asymptomatic or “mildly symptomatic” and were very unlikely to be hospitalized.

As such, he did not think that the outbreaks at camps across the country would necessarily herald a dangerous wave of illness among unvaccinated children once the school year starts.

“Is this the canary in the coal mine for massive school-based outbreaks in the fall? I don’t think so,” Dr. Zachariah said.


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