It’s a great American summer tradition: sleepaway camp! Campfires, singing, sports, smores, and now… COVID-19?
Despite best intentions and precautions, the BA.5 surge has already contributed to many COVID-19 outbreaks at summer camp. Camps have taken different approaches, ranging from sending COVID positive children home immediately, isolating positive campers in separate bunks, or avoiding testing altogether.
This week my two boys came home from sleepaway camp full of stories and songs. But before we had even started unpacking their filthy laundry, we received messages from parents of campers testing positive for COVID-19 upon arriving home. We worried our kids might be bringing more than good memories home from camp.
So what are the best strategies for minimizing the chance that camp outbreaks lead to further spread
When your camper comes home from sleepaway camp, it’s wise to take extra precautions for a few extra days to prevent further transmission.
Below are some practical steps you can take to reduce the chances that camp COVID infections will spread outside camp:
TL;DR: If financially feasible, test your camper regularly and be careful around other family members for the first 5 days back home, whether or not the camper is symptomatic.
If your camper is symptomatic:
If your returning camper has any symptoms of COVID-19 (including a tickly throat), test them at home with a rapid antigen test.
If results are negative, test again in 24-48 hours, and continue testing for the first 5 days. Consider a PCR test if still negative and symptomatic after 5 days. With the new variants, symptoms may appear before rapid antigen tests are able to detect virus.
If results are positive, follow guidance for isolation until testing negative.
If your camper has no symptoms:
Even if your camper does not appear to have symptoms, I recommend using rapid antigen tests on the first day back and ideally daily during the first 5 days back home. Rapid tests are not as cheap as they should be, so testing less frequently is still helpful if daily is not feasible. Exposures have been happening all over camps and the journey home, and infection does not show up immediately.
If your returning camper will be joining other summer activities indoors during the first 5 days home (e.g. a day camp, camp reunion, party), ideally you should rapid test shortly before the event.
To reduce chances of spread within your own household, you can consider precautions beyond testing:
Your camper and/or other household members can wear well-fitting N95/KN95 masks indoors at home for the first 5 days back (when not eating or sleeping). This is a cautious approach, but could be advisable if you have vulnerable family members at risk of severe COVID disease.
Keep your home well-ventilated. Eat outside if possible.
Use masks and open windows when traveling together by car.
Delay visits with grandparents and other vulnerable friends/family until after the first 5 days back.
Avoid sleepovers for the first 5 days.
For camps that did not send kids home after testing positive:
If you know that your camper tested positive for COVID at camp, consider testing when they get home, to make sure that they complete isolation until testing negative by a rapid antigen test (not PCR).
For camps where there was no testing or no communication about results:
Under the current circumstances, it is reasonable to assume that there has likely been an outbreak. Don’t interpret “no testing” as “no COVID”!
We all want summer to be a carefree time for our kids. While summer camps come with risks, taking some basic precautions when returning home can help to stop any camp outbreaks from spreading further. With school starting soon in many places, snuffing out these chains of transmission is even more important.
Guest author Katie Schenk, MA MSc PhD is an epidemiologist who has been working on the public health frontline for State and Local Health Departments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Follow her on Twitter.