In a startling finding with disturbing implications for schools, 260 children and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in an outbreak that spread in just days at a summer camp in northern Georgia, according to a study released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s one of the largest known COVID-19 super-spreading events in the state.
All counselors and campers “passed all mandatory screenings” and were required to have a negative COVID-19 test before attending the camp in late June, the study noted.
Of the 597 residents at the YMCA Camp High Harbor in Rabun County — identified in the report as “Camp A” — 344 were tested for the virus, and 260 tested positive. That’s a 77% infection rate just for those tested.
The group with the highest number of positive tests (more than 50% of those tested) were the youngest children, 6 to 10 years old — and 75% of all children known to have contracted COVID-19 experienced symptoms, the study found.
The findings hold profound implications for the pending reopening of schools in the state, where in-person instruction is planned.
“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 study warned.
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. Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation
The virus at the camp apparently began with a teenage counselor who left after falling ill five days after staff orientation and two days after children arrived. The counselor tested positive for COVID-19 the following day. The YMCA immediately began sending children home and closed the camp three days later. Georgia’s Department of Health launched an investigation and began tests.
The CDC report noted “high attack rates” even though some — but not all — health guidelines were followed at the camp. Staff members wore masks, for example, but campers were not required to do so. Guidelines also called for increased ventilation of buildings, which was not provided, according to the report.
“Relatively large cohorts sleeping in the same cabin and engaging in regular singing and cheering likely contributed to transmission,” the CDC said. “Use of cloth masks, which has been shown to reduce the risk for infection, was not universal.”
Multiday camp settings “post a unique challenge” in containing the spread of COVID-19 given the amount of time campers and staff members spend in “close proximity,” the CDC noted in a statement.
But the agency also raised the specter of risk in pending school openings, as it emphasized the importance of following all health guidelines.
“Correct and consistent use of cloth masks, rigorous cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing, and frequent hand washing strategies, which are recommended in CDC’s recently released guidance to reopen America’s schools, are critical to prevent transmission of the virus in settings involving children,” the CDC stated.
Former epidemiologist Brian Castrucci, CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a Maryland nonprofit that assists public health agencies, said the report represents a serious warning for school districts
“This should show you how actively kids can transmit it,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“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.”
A YMCA executive said in a statement that the organization now regrets holding the camp.
“Attending Camp High Harbour is a tradition numerous generations of Y families look forward to every summer,” said a statement from Parrish Underwood, chief advancement officer for the YMCA of Metro Atlanta. “Many ... express[ed] 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.”
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed an executive order in May allowing overnight summer camps in the state, provided that all participating had a negative COVID-19 test within 12 days of attending. Kemp is opposed to a mask mandate and is suing Atlanta’s mayor for instituting a mask requirement in public areas.
As of Friday, 186,352 people in Georgia had tested positive for COVID-19, and 3,752 have died of the virus.
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