Cautionary tale: Was a COVID-19 outbreak at summer camp caused by Delta variant?

AP Photo/LM Otero

A church in League City, Texas suspended services Sunday after about 120 to 130 children were infected with COVID-19 while attending a summer camp. The church-sponsored summer camp was held last week. Health officials suspect that they were infected with the Delta variant.

Galveston County Health District officials don’t yet have a final number of the children, in grades 6-12, who may have contracted the virus. Local officials say that 450 adults and children attended the church camp. Church officials think that hundreds of people may have been exposed to COVID-19, likely the Delta variant. This is a logical assumption since young people are either not eligible for a vaccine or have not been vaccinated yet. Dr. Phillip Keiser noted that the Delta variant strain of the coronavirus is highly contagious. There are some positive cases among those who had been vaccinated.

Health officials are taking this opportunity to conduct some research about the Delta variant.

“We’re testing it for the Delta variant, to see if that’s the cause for it spreading so rapidly among that group,” Keiser said.

“So, we knew that there were going to be breakthroughs, but this is going to be a real opportunity for us to learn more about the delta variant because we have a group of people who have just been exposed,” Keiser said. “If it turns out to be the delta variant, we know when they were exposed, and we can see how well they’ve done, and see how many people are breaking through.”

The summer camp was held from June 23 to June 27 in Giddings, Texas, about 100 miles west of downtown Houston. The church fears that hundreds more than the 450 people who attended have been exposed to COVID-19. Infected campers and adult supervisors could have exposed others when they returned home. The Galveston County health authority confirmed that 42 county residents tested positive for the virus after the camp though at least two of them were fully vaccinated. So far no hospitalizations have been reported.

A Harris County (Houston) public health official said the number of Harris County residents who tested positive is not yet available. Keiser took the opportunity to remind people of the importance of getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“What we’re really concerned about is kids getting it and going home and passing it on to older relatives,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “So this is something we’re going to keep monitoring for several weeks.”

Keiser said the outbreak is a reminder that COVID continues to lurk in the Houston-area. He urged people to get vaccinated, adding that most infections are now confined to those who are not yet inoculated. Unvaccinated people account for nearly all COVID deaths in the United States.

The investigation into the outbreak includes contact tracing. Officials reminded those involved to get tested and remain in quarantine at home until the test results come back.

“The health district is working closely with church leadership to investigate the outbreak, trace potential contacts and offer guidance and resources,” health district officials said. “The youth group did not leave the campground during their stay. They did have contact with counselors from their church. No other campers were on site.”

Health officials are asking anyone who attended the Clear Creek Community Church camp who either feels sick or is a “close contact” of someone who tested positive after attending the camp to get tested and quarantine at home while they await the test results.

In a Facebook post, the senior pastor at the church, Clear Creek Community Church, reassured people that the church followed “strict safety protocols”. This was a Student Ministry Camp. After leaving the camp and returning home, campers and adults began reporting to the church that they tested positive for the coronavirus.

The church canceled services last Sunday and for this Wednesday due to the outbreak. The church has five campuses in the area.

“We are surprised and saddened by this turn of events,” Wesley said in the post. “Our hearts break for those infected with the virus. Please pray for a speedy and complete recovery for all of those affected.”

Health officials warn that this is a cautionary tale. As more children attend summer camps, the potential for super-spreader events increases. This camp won’t be the only one to experience a mass outbreak of campers testing positive for COVID-19, especially now with the prevalence of the Delta variant. An Illinois church camp didn’t check campers’ vaccination status or require face masks indoors. More than 80 teens and adult staffers have tested positive for COVID-19.

According to a statement from the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), the Crossing Camp in Schuyler County, which was held in mid-June, reportedly didn’t check vaccination status for either campus or staffers, and masks weren’t required indoors. All campers and staff were eligible for vaccination, but the IDPH says they were “aware of only a handful of campers and staff receiving” it.

In response to the outbreak, IDPH is emphasizing the importance of vaccination, especially among young people, given that the Delta variant and other variants continue to spread.

In a press release, IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike noted, “The majority of the 85 COVID-19 cases associated with the youth camp are among teens. The perceived risk to children may seem small, but even a mild case of COVID-19 can cause long-term health issues. Additionally, infected youth who may not experience severe illness can still spread the virus to others, including those who are too young to be vaccinated or those who don’t build the strong expected immune response to the vaccine.”

IDPH added that at least two individuals from the camp also went to a nearby church conference, which resulted in 11 additional positive cases.

The CDC’s guidance on summer camps is that campers twelve and up be vaccinated.

This guidance is intended for all types of youth day and overnight camps. The guidance outlines strategies that camp programs can use to help maintain healthy environments and operations, lower the risk of COVID-19 spread in their programs, prepare for when someone is sick with COVID-19, and support coping and resilience.

For camps where everyone is fully vaccinated prior to the start of camp, it is safe to return to full capacity, without masking, and without physical distancing in accordance with CDC’s Interim Public Health Recommendations for Fully Vaccinated People; except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations.

Although people who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks, camp programs should be supportive of campers or staff who choose to wear a mask.

The CDC guidance is much the same as for schools. Social distancing is recommended, too. I’m not sure how practical any of this is – the face masks and social distancing at summer camp – but this is the guidance being used in order to allow kids to get back to attending summer camp this year. We have to return back to normal. Children have missed enough time with friends and social contact during the pandemic. The American Academy of Pediatrics also offers advice to parents. Parents have to weigh the risks when deciding what is best for their child.