Camps & COVID: Old Ideas, New Approach

September 30, 2020 by

By Jeffrey Vergales, Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Cardiology

Q: Tell me about how this project came about.
A: My daughter (9) has attended summer camp the last few years. We visited Maine last year so that my son (7) could check it out. While we were there, I ran into Wendy Cohn (Associate Professor, Biomedical Informatics at UVA) who told me she was working at the camp and that her children attended in the past, as well.

Fast forward 9 months and COVID hits. I get a phone call from Wendy suggesting that I connect with the camp director for one of the girls’ camps across Maine. The director said, “Hey, we would love to open this year, but we need professional help.” They needed to understand child health and how to navigate this situation. I also connected with the camp my son was attending. That team connected me to the Maine CDC and the planning began!

Fast forward another month and everything is starting to shut down. I believed that overnight summer camp had the ability to do something a little bit different and that they could be successful at mitigating risk. We formed a collaboration with two other camps (4 total), representing about 700 kids. There were also about 400 staff members to worry about, ranging from college aged to 70 years old. They had their own concerns, so we knew we needed to focus on educating them and answering all of their questions.

I teamed up with public health experts and pediatricians from around the country. We talked though the situation to develop best practices and protocols.

Q: For you, what is the most rewarding part?
A: Both my kids went to camp this year. Both my kids loved it. Seeing all the kids “be kids” was really the best part. It brought me back to my roots in pediatrics. I talked to 12-year-olds that were incredibly stressed. It meant the world to us to keep them healthy while allowing them to look after their mental health. I made a difference for 700 kids and that’s a great feeling.

Q: How did you develop your strategy?
A: COVID is new but the tools necessary to combat it are not. Distancing and handwashing and quarantining have been used in every other big outbreak around the world. So much weight is put on testing, but testing is just one part of the equation.

Camps went through this extensively in 2009 with H1N1, which effected children much more drastically than COVID. Decades ago, it was polio in the 50s. So, we knew how to do it, but we were under a much larger time crunch.

We didn’t create new ideas. What we did was bounce ideas off each other. We said, “How do we apply what we know to camps in 2020? How do we deal with travel? What about shared sports equipment?” At the end of the day, it’s a virus that spreads in close contact. We focused on tracking, isolation, and mitigation.

Q: What did you learn that stood out?
A: A large part of my background is in public health and I love that part of my job. It was interesting to apply that knowledge to kids at camp.

This project reminded me of the resiliency of children. A lot of people say, “If we can’t do it all, we can’t do it any of it.” There is this all-or-nothing mentality. That’s just not true. People are grateful. They rise to the occasion. These kids were happy to be with their friends and the counselors were happy to be with their peers.

Q: How can your work inform other efforts, especially as school is starting?
A: Everyone is looking for that perfect COVID recipe. The key is determining how you apply the tools. The reason we were able to prevent widespread outbreak was that we walked through each camp, each camper, each counselor. It was a huge lift and it took a lot of thought. You can’t just apply the protocols we used and expect them to work across the board. Your approach has to be different and you have to be okay with that. I still believe that 2 hours of in-person school is better than none. Structured camp is better than none. I worry that we lose sight of that. Everything has risk but it doesn’t mean you can’t be successful.

From the CDC: Preventing and Mitigating SARS-CoV-2 Transmission — Four Overnight Camps, Maine, June–August 2020

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