After being cooped up during the pandemic, many kids are excited to go to summer camp — to run around outside, make new friends, learn new skills. And their parents, who also may have been cooped up for months, are eager to send them — to give the kids some structured playtime and themselves a little grown-up time in the process.
However, with COVID-19 still circulating and children under 12 still ineligible for vaccines, how safe are summer camps this year?
The COVID-19 positivity rate in California is about 1% — the lowest since the pandemic began in March 2020, which means far less virus is circulating in local communities. And studies from last summer, when infection rates were much higher, show that a multi-layered approach that includes masks, social distancing and frequent hand-washing can make camp a relatively low-risk endeavor for kids and counselors.
“There are data demonstrating that if you follow mitigation protocols, you can reduce virus transmission in summer camps,” says Annabelle de St. Maurice, MD, MPH, a pediatrician and co-chief infection prevention officer for UCLA Health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines in April specific to youth summer camps. Its key recommendations include universal masking for camp participants and counselors, practicing physical distancing and grouping campers into cohorts who play and eat together. It also advises holding activities outside whenever possible and employing contact tracing, isolation and quarantine in response to suspected outbreaks.
Those who can be vaccinated — people age 12 and older are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine — should aim to complete their doses at least two weeks before camp begins.
An American Camp Association study of 486 camps serving 90,000 participants in the summer of 2020 found only 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases among campers, attributing the relatively low count with the proper protocols being in place.
“The science demonstrates that camps that have implemented strict, layered mitigation strategies — including masking, cohorting, physical distancing, cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, proper hand washing and respiratory etiquette — have been able to safely operate in person,” said Tom Rosenberg, president and chief executive of the association.
The group also released detailed guidelines for safe overnight camp protocols.
Dr. de St. Maurice cites a study released last summer that looked at four overnight camps in Maine that prevented and contained COVID-19 outbreaks among more than 1,000 campers and counselors. Only three cases were reported.
All camp attendees were told to quarantine at home with their families for 10 to 14 days before coming to camp. Campers and staffers were provided information about cough and sneeze etiquette and hand hygiene in the weeks prior to camp. Everyone was tested for COVID-19 before coming to camp.
Once on site, campers and workers were screened for fever and answered symptom questionnaires daily. Those who indicated possible symptoms were tested for COVID-19.
Campers and staffers formed cohorts based on shared sleeping quarters and maintained physical distance of at least six feet from those outside their group. Bathrooms were cleaned and disinfected twice daily and use was staggered and limited by cohort. Camp dining halls followed restaurant COVID-19 protocols and used disposable, single-use silverware and beverage containers when possible.
“Now that the Pfizer vaccine is authorized, some of these mitigation measures may be able to be modified for vaccinated kids,” Dr. de St. Maurice says.
Another study found that day camps in North Carolina also were able to curb COVID-19 transmission with a similar approach. Among more than 6,800 campers and workers across YMCA camps in six counties, 17 infections occurred but spread to only two other camp participants.
Camps that didn’t follow such measures, however, weren’t nearly as successful at keeping the virus at bay.
“There are reports of outbreaks in summer camps where people weren’t masked and were singing and cheering and close together and maybe not doing as much testing,” Dr. de St. Maurice says.
For example, a study found that an overnight camp in Georgia that allowed “daily vigorous singing and cheering,” didn’t increase ventilation in indoor areas and didn’t require cloth masks for campers saw an outbreak of more than 130 COVID-19 cases after one counselor and one camper exhibited symptoms of infection. Cases spread despite campers staying in cohorts and all participants being tested before coming to camp.
“Everything depends on the layers of protection you have,” Dr. de St. Maurice says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests parents of prospective campers consider the following questions when exploring camp options:
- How will the camp help children follow coronavirus safety rules?
- Will most activities be held indoors or outdoors?
- What happens if someone gets sick?
- How will snacks and meals work?
- How will campers move throughout the day at camp?
- Should my child be tested for COVID-19 before or during camp?
- What resources are available at camp for handling children’s health needs?