While similar clusters have occurred around funerals, weddings, teenage parties and adult gatherings throughout the covid-19 pandemic, few super-spreading events have been documented among children.
The report will likely add fuel to an already polarizing nationwide discussion about whether sending children back to crowded school buildings is worth the risk, in large part because so little data has been available about children’s vulnerability to the infection and their ability to transmit the virus.
“To me, this is a significant weight added to the side of the scale that says close the schools,” said Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California-Irvine. “At some places, that might tip the balance. You’re not adding one of those 1,000-ton anvils in the cartoons, but it’s solid evidence to suggest we should be extremely cautious about opening schools.”
The Trump administration has pushed for schools to reopen in recent weeks, while many states and major cities — including the District — have announced they will resume online only to begin the year. “I do say again, young people are almost immune to this disease. The younger the better,” President Trump said Thursday during a White House briefing. “They’re stronger. They have a stronger immune system.”
Advocates of reopening schools for in-person instruction argue that early research shows children are less prone to infection and severe outcomes from the virus than adults. While data continues to support that idea, little had been known about the extent to which they could transmit it — particularly when they are not showing symptoms.
“There’s been a lot of speculation about how kids spread it because they are less symptomatic,” Noymer said. “We know that asymptomatic spreading is a thing, we’ve put that to bed, and the fact that these kids are not symptomatic doesn’t mean they’re not spreading it.”
According to the report released Friday, the outbreak at the camp identified only as “Camp A” suggests children “might play an important role in transmission.”
“These findings demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 spread efficiently in a youth-centric overnight setting, resulting in high attack rates among people in all age groups, despite efforts by camp officials to implement most recommended strategies to prevent transmission,” the report said.
“Asymptomatic infection was common and potentially contributed to undetected transmission, as has been previously reported. This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection.”
The CDC released a separate statement with a headline about “the importance of CDC mitigation strategies,” rather than about the incident’s implications for viral transmission in children. The statement noted that by not requiring campers to wear masks, or airing out cabins, the camp had not followed CDC reopening guidance, and also pointed to “daily vigorous singing and shouting” as potential contributing factors.
“Correct and consistent use of cloth masks, rigorous cleaning and sanitizing, social distancing, and frequent hand-washing strategies, which are recommended in CDC’s recently released guidance to reopen America’s schools, are critical to prevent transmission of the virus in settings involving children and are our greatest tools to prevent covid-19,” the statement read.
Noymer acknowledged that summer camp likely requires children spend more time in close proximity than schools would, and that the children at this camp were not wearing masks — something some schools say they will require. But many skeptics of re-opening have pointed out that children likely will not be diligent mask-wearers or social distancers, so reopening plans that include those measures in theory may not actually be able to rely on them.
Authors of the report noted the study was limited by its data set, which includes tests of 344 of the campers and therefore could be missing cases. In addition, since Georgia experienced a jump in covid-19 transmission over the summer, some campers may have caught the virus before arriving. The CDC report acknowledged it could not determine which campers did and did not adhere to recommendations for physical distancing, which also limits the kind of conclusions that can be drawn from the data.
The camp had opened in two phases, according to the report: An orientation for 138 trainees and 120 staffers occurred June 17 through June 20. A total of 363 campers and three senior staffers joined on June 21. On June 23, a teenage staffer left after developing chills and subsequently tested positive for covid-19.
Camp officials began sending campers home on June 24 and closed the camp on the 27th.
Of those who were tested and came up positive, 231 were aged 17 or younger; the remaining 29 were adults. Data about symptoms was available for only 136 patients: About a quarter, or 36 people, reported no symptoms; A hundred children and staff (74 percent) reported symptoms, including fever (65 percent), headache (61 percent) and sore throat (46 percent).