Missouri leaders knew the risk of convening thousands of kids at summer camps across the state during a pandemic, the state's top health official said, and insisted that camp organizers have plans in place to keep an outbreak from happening. The outbreak happened anyway.
An overnight summer camp in rural southwestern Missouri has seen scores of campers, counselors and staff infected with the coronavirus, the local health department revealed this week, raising questions about the ability to keep kids safe at what is a rite of childhood for many.
Missouri is one of several states to report outbreaks at summer camps. The Kanakuk camp near Branson ended up sending its teenage campers home. On Friday, the local health department announced 49 positive cases of the COVID-19 virus at the camp. By Monday, the number had jumped to 82.
Some states, like Oregon, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, closed summer camps this year, and many camps elsewhere have voluntarily canceled programs. But other camps are plowing ahead, hoping that precautions like social distancing, masks and requiring children to quarantine before coming to camp will quell the risk. Other states where outbreaks have been reported have included Texas, Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee.
Some 26 million youths normally take part in camps across the U.S. each year, the American Camp Association said Tuesday. The group estimates 19.5 million young people will miss out on in-person day and overnight camps this year due to the pandemic, with 6.5 million still expected to go.
Missouri's outbreak at a camp operated by Christian-based Kanakuk Kamp has done little to change the way that state is handling summer camps, which essentially calls for camp operators to consult with their local public health agency to craft plans to keep kids and staff safe. Camps must report any positive cases to the state.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health, said Monday that his agency had no plans to shut down summer camps in the wake of the Missouri outbreak.
“We think school is incredibly important to kids. We also think camps are important,” Williams said.
In fact, the camp plans to reopen later this summer once test results from all staffers are returned and show it's safe to do so, Williams said.
Phone and email messages left Tuesday by The Associated Press for Kanakuk Kamp were not immediately returned. The organization holds six overnight and day camps across the state, usually drawing more than 20,000 kids from across the country, according to its website.
In Texas, dozens of campers and staffers who attended Pine Cove’s Christian camps have tested positive, and several weeks of camp were canceled after clusters of cases were discovered. That includes at least 76 cases in June linked to its overnight camp for teens in Southeast Texas near Columbus. The Ridge camp shut down for two weeks in June before reopening last week, Pine Cove spokeswoman Susan Andreone said.
The organization's Silverado camp, also near Columbus, and two of its camps in East Texas also saw staff changes or interruptions after coronavirus cases. Despite that, Andreone said more than 8,500 people had been on their camp properties through last week, and most sessions haven’t been affected. Pine Cove has 10 overnight properties in Texas.
The spread came despite state requirements that include enforcing social distancing and banning outside visitors. As of last week, campers and staff must wear masks when social distancing isn't possible.
“Can we guarantee that someone is not going to get COVID? Absolutely not. But we also understand that parents really know their families best, they know what their particular circumstances are or any particular risks that they have within their family,” Andreone said.
Increases in reported cases around the country led Tara Carlson, of Omaha, Nebraska, to pull her 9-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter from their planned summer camps at the last minute.
“We lost over $300," Carson said, “but we feared the risk was too great."
Carlson said she was comfortable with efforts camps had taken against the virus, including mask requirements, limited group sizes and increased cleaning of communal areas. But she didn't want to risk picking up the virus because of regular visits with her parents, including her mom in hospice care.
“I didn't feel I could trust what other families were doing as far as social distancing," she said.