A Church Camp Didn't Require Masks or Vaccinations—And Nearly 200 People Got COVID
Infectious disease experts weren't exactly surprised.
A church camp in Illinois that didn't require COVID vaccines, testing, or masking was the site of a COVID-19 outbreak earlier this summer. The camp, which wasn't publicly identified, has been linked to 180 confirmed and probable cases as of August 13.
Details of the event are broken down in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. According to the report, the Illinois Department of Public Health investigated COVID-19 outbreaks at two events—a five-day overnight church camp for teenagers and a two-day men's conference—that were sponsored by the same organization.
There were 294 campers between the ages of 14 and 18, along with 41 staff members, at the first event held in June. All of the campers lived, ate, and participated in activities together. On the second to last day of the teenage camp, a camper left after developing a fever and respiratory symptoms. The camper later tested positive for COVID-19.
The other campers and staff members were encouraged to get tested and quarantine. But six camp staff members from the teen camp then went to the organization's men's conference before receiving the results of their COVID tests, which later came back positive. That conference, which was held at a different location from the camp, had 500 attendees and 30 staff members.
Both sites didn't require attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 or tested for the virus before either event. Of the 122 people who were initially infected, 104 (or 85%) were not fully vaccinated against the virus. However, 18 of the infections (15%) were among people who were fully vaccinated. Eight of their 38 close contacts were also infected with the virus.
The outbreak eventually grew to infect 180 people. Of those, five were hospitalized; none of those who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were hospitalized. Overall, 1,127 people across at least four states were exposed to the virus by either attending one of the events or via close contact with a person who had a primary infection.
"This investigation underscores the impact of secondary SARS-CoV-2 transmission during large events, such as camps and conferences, when COVID-19 prevention strategies are not implemented," the authors of the report wrote.
Infectious disease experts aren't shocked by the findings. "When you have an event in the midst of high community transmissions and don't use tools like vaccines and testing, outbreaks are inevitable," infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health.
The takeaway from this report is "pretty basic," William Schaffner, MD, an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, tells Health. "In the face of a pandemic, if you do not apply basic infection control, you are inviting an outbreak," he says. "This is no surprise."
Experts say that the one positive takeaway from the report is that it's further proof COVID-19 vaccines work. "Vaccines work extremely well and render the vast majority of breakthrough cases mild," Dr. Adalja says. Dr. Schaffner agrees. "The vaccine clearly protected these people from hospitalization," he says. "That's what it's designed to do. But they are less effective in protecting against milder infections—that's why you have to wear a mask, too."
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