Hundreds of Coronavirus Infections at Georgia Camp Raise Tough Questions About Schools Reopening

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Hundreds at a YMCA camp in north Georgia were infected with the coronavirus in a mere matter of days before it was shut down, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that could have broad implications for the ongoing debate about reopening schools. YMCA Camp High Harbour followed some but not all the CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the 597 campers and staff. A total of 260 children and staffers tested positive for COVID-19, amounting to more than three-quarters of the 344 people for whom the CDC was able to obtain results.

The children at the camp had a median age of 12 and the CDC report suggests that children of all ages are susceptible to not only contracting but also spreading the coronavirus. The camp had required all 597 campers and staff members to provide documentation that they had tested negative for COVID-19 before arriving. Once there, all staffers were required to wear masks but children were not. The CDC report immediately raised concerns because even though these types of super-spreading events had been detected at parties, funerals, and other adult gatherings there are few examples that involve children. “This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports might play an important role in transmission,” the report said.

Experts who analyzed the results of the study acknowledge that there are some clear differences between the sleepaway camp and schools. After all, at a regular school, children likely don’t spend as much time together in such close proximity as they do in camps. But it’s still “solid evidence to suggest we should be extremely cautious about opening schools,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California at Irvine. Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a Maryland nonprofit that assists public health agencies, agreed the report should be seen as a warning sing for school districts. “This should show you how actively kids can transmit it,” he said. “If you have a low prevalence in your community, you can start to do things. If you have rampant and rapid community spread, then there is no opening school, there is no opening colleges. It is not going to work.”

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In addition to not requiring the campers to wear masks, Hugh Harbour also did not follow recommendation for increased ventilation in buildings. Plus campers got involved in activities that increased the likelihood of transmission. “Relatively large cohorts sleeping in the same cabin and engaging in regular singing and cheering likely contributed to transmission,” the CDC said.

Five days after the start of orientation and two days after the camp session started, a teenage staff member became sick and left the camp. When the COVID-19 diagnosis was confirmed, the camp said it told parents they could pick up their children early although some parents now complain the severity of the situation was not made clear, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Parrish Underwood, chief advancement officer for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta, said in a written statement that the organization regrets going forward with the camp. “Attending Camp High Harbour is a tradition numerous generations of Y families look forward to every summer,” Underwood said. “Many of these individuals reached out to our staff to express their desire for us to open our residential camps in an effort to create normalcy in their children’s lives due to the detrimental impact of COVID-19. This weighed heavily in our decision to open, a decision in retrospect we regret.”