What the Georgia summer-camp outbreak tells us about COVID-19 & Schools

Today’s COVID-19 news contained the depressing information that 260 of 597 attendees at a Georgia summer camp had tested positive to COVID-19. As super-spreader events to, that was a whopper. It also bodes poorly for opening schools in the fall. (Image credit: Taliroll / CC BY-SA, creative commons license.)

But with everything else in the news today, details were slim. And even the best news sources can mess things up. So I went to the CDC journal article on which it was based. You can find it here. These reports are a bit dry, but generally readable, and this one was no exception.

Her are the basic facts:

  • The camp was open for a single one-week session (plus a few days of training for staff and counselors).
  • There were 363 campers and 158 counselors, most of whom appear to be high school or college students. (This does not add up to 597, because the 597 included only people from Georgia. A few were from out of state.)
  • Everyone had tested negative for COVID-19 within 12 days of arriving.
  • Campers ranged in age from 6 to 19.
  • They stayed in cabins with as many as 26 residents per cabin (the average was 15).
  • Probably because it was summer in the South and they were using air conditioning, the windows of these and other buildings were closed.
  • Counselors and staff wore masks. Campers didn’t.
  • Activities included “vigorous” singing and cheering–apparently a lot of it, presumably indoors.

Overall, at least 44 percent tested positive (there may be others whose test results are unknown), though it’s possible that some of the 260 who tested positive picked up the disease after leaving the camp. Interestingly, the highest attack rates were among the youngest ones, including 51 percent of those aged 6-10.

What this all means isn’t entirely clear.

One thing it very clearly means is that young kids can indeed get and spread the disease quickly, and effectively. That’s definitely bad news.

Furthermore, the younger ones are more susceptible to doing so. Does that mean that contrary to what we once thought, they aren’t actually relatively unlikely to be infected, once exposed, but instead are fairly highly so? That actually makes more sense, because kids’ tend to catch other viruses more easily than do adults. Or does it just meant that younger kids are less cautious (or more likely to forget) and therefore more easily exposed?

Either way, it says that opening schools for younger students first might actually be backward.

On the other hand, although this operation is described as a “camp,” the findings don’t reveal any new risk to outdoor activities. There may well be risks to these (especially team sports and the like), but the high-risk activities revealed by this study appear to have been indoor ones. Singing and cheering were specifically mentioned but I’d bet an even bigger factor was staying in poorly ventilated cabins, probably in bunk beds. As the CDC report concluded:

“Relatively large cohorts sleeping in the same cabin and engaging in regular singing and cheering likely contributed to transmission.”

Another important finding, not strongly highlighted by the report, is that the virus very effectively jumped between cabins. Of the 31 cabins in use at the camp, 28 reported infections. If that can happen between cabins at a summer camp, there’s no reason to believe it can’t happen between classrooms at schools.

And that means it’s more important than ever to set aside politics occasionally, and look at the data, trying to figure out what activities are the riskiest and what we can do to minimize the risk. Only then should we move on to the question of whether these activities are worth the risk. Not that I’m holding my breath that this will happen soon. But one can always dream.

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