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Summer camps get hit with COVID-19 outbreaks; is this a bad sign for schools?

Some summer camps have had to shut down due to COVID-19 outbreaks, especially the more contagious delta variant.
Summer camp students in line to go outside
Summer camps across the United States are closing with COVID-19 outbreaks. What will happen when school starts?Thomas Barwick / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

A July COVID-19 outbreak tied to a Connecticut summer camp that led to 13 campers testing positive is the latest in a string of camp-related spreads that are making parents worried about the upcoming school year.

The vast majority of summer camps are operating without issues. But what happens at camp isn't staying at camp — and that's the problem. In many cases, camp outbreaks have spread to local communities, providing some insight into the highly contagious delta variant.

In June, health officials in Illinois reported that 85 teens and adults at a Christian youth camp tested positive, including an unvaccinated young adult who was hospitalized. Eleven additional cases were reported after some people from the camp attended a nearby conference.

In early July, officials in Leon County, Florida, tweeted that an increase in cases was tied younger kids at summer camps. Just weeks later, Conley Elementary School's Extended Day Enrichment Program in Tallahassee closed because of positive cases among students.

In New York, an outbreak at sleep-away Camp Pontiac left 31 children with COVID-19.

Are summer camps a forecast for classrooms?

Dr. Michelle Prickett, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, told the Associated Press that summer camp outbreaks “certainly could be a precursor” and that the outcome will depend on vaccination rates and virus variants.

Dr. Albert Icksang Ko, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Yale School of Public Health, agreed.

"I think unfortunately this is a precursor in some sense for the fall," Ko told TODAY Parents, underscoring the delta variant's highly transmissible nature. "It's really quite surprising... you have a pathogen that's doubled its transmissibility within a year and a half of being discovered."

Dr. David Dowdy, associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said it's important to recognize while summer camp outbreaks show that transmission between kids is possible, it's not the whole story.

"It is important to recognize there are a lot of kids in summer camps and you're going to hear about the few that have outbreaks," Dowdy told TODAY Parents, adding that the way that kids interact at summer camp is not exactly the way they interact at school.

Ko suggested the U.S. look at what happened in other countries.

"In Israel, they've had transmission of delta in schools," he explained. "In England, adolescents and children lower than 18 years of age haven't been vaccinated; they saw nine-fold increase in incidents in that group from 13-17 years of age."

But there is good news.

"Children have a much lower risk of developing severe complications, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID than older segments of the population," Ko said.

Dowdy added, "Schools are going to be thinking about the possibility of transmission within the school walls, so they're going to be implementing some sorts of procedures, which will differ from one place to the next."

Ahead of the 2021-2022 school year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidance for K-12 schools: Due to the highly contagious delta variant, wearing masks indoors is recommended for ages 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status.

Ko said this is a good thing.

"We know this is a disease that causes super spreading, (but) risk mitigation works," Ko said, adding that mitigation efforts are critical to prevention. "I'm optimistic that if we go back to the meat and potatoes of prevention, coupled with vaccination, we can open schools safely."