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COVID-19 Outbreaks Are Happening at Summer Camps Across the U.S.

Kids lined up at summer camp

Thomas Barwick / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Summer camps in several U.S. states are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks.
  • Experts say this is due to lower vaccination rates, the Delta variant, and the lack of precautions at some camps.
  • Similar outbreaks are likely when schools go back, but severe illness shouldn't be expected.

A series of COVID-19 outbreaks connected to summer camps is causing concern among some U.S. parents. Outbreaks have been reported in several states, including Missouri, Ohio, New York, Illinois, Kansas, and Texas. But experts say it shouldn't come as a surprise.

An Increased Risk of Transmission Is Unavoidable

“As activities return to normal with fewer restrictions and people are allowed to make personal decisions around mask use, an increased risk of transmission is unavoidable,” says Charles Bailey, MD, medical director for infection prevention at Providence St. Joseph Hospital and Providence Mission Hospital in Orange County, California. 

Charles Bailey, MD

As activities return to normal with fewer restrictions and people are allowed to make personal decisions around mask use, an increased risk of transmission is unavoidable.

— Charles Bailey, MD

According to the New York Times, the summer camp outbreaks have mainly happened in states with lower vaccination rates, such as Illinois, Kansas, and Texas. This is a major factor, says Vidya Mony, DO, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, California. “The vast majority of COVID-19 cases being seen right now are in people who are unvaccinated,” Dr. Mony says.  

Basically, COVID-19 cases shouldn’t be unexpected whenever groups of people who aren’t fully vaccinated or otherwise immune to COVID-19 (i.e., who’ve been previously infected and recovered) congregate. This applies whether they gather indoors or outdoors with close contact, Dr. Bailey says, such as canoeing, huddling on the ball field, or sitting around the campfire.

The Delta Variant

The Delta variant, the dominant strain of coronavirus in the U.S., is another factor, Dr. Mony adds. A recent preprint study out of China showed that viral load is roughly 1,000 times higher in people infected with the Delta variant than those infected with the original coronavirus strain. “All you need is one infected person in a setting of many unvaccinated children and now you have an outbreak,” Dr. Mony explains. 

However, Dr. Bailey points out that similar outcomes would be expected from any of the COVID-19 strains. While the Delta variant is considered to be more easily transmissible, he says it’s not markedly “worse” than other variant strains.   

Carol Winner, MPH

To protect our children, we must vaccinate those of age, require those younger to wear masks (starting at age 3), and avoid unnecessary travel and hotel stays.

— Carol Winner, MPH

Vaccination status and Delta variant aside, the precautions individual camps are taking are key. According to the Illinois Department of Public Health, 85 teens and adults at a Christian youth camp in mid-June tested positive. Despite all campers and staff being eligible for the vaccine, only “a handful” had received it, and the camp didn’t check vaccination status or require masks indoors

“Having an outbreak in a camp setting with these conditions is not very surprising,” Dr. Mony says. She adds that there are many considerations—Does the camp require that staff and children 12 years of age and older are vaccinated? Is masking for unvaccinated people mandated? If this was a sleep away camp, how were the sleeping arrangements determined?—and no two outbreaks are the same. 

Going Back to School

With only a few weeks left until school starts in the U.S., it’s natural for parents to be wondering what risks will accompany a return to the classroom. But remember, schools are set up differently than camps just by design. “Not all the kids will eat at the same time, nor will they have recess at the same time,” Dr. Mony says. “Plus, many states have already mandated masking while in school, which will most definitely help—especially in those states [that] have low vaccination rates and high case numbers.”

To avoid undue concern, Dr. Bailey says it helps to understand the facts around COVID-19 infection in school-age children. “Younger (pre-high school) children may contract and transmit COVID-19 but seldom get severely ill themselves; and once recovered, they are protected from re-infection as would be a vaccinated individual,” he notes.  

So while similar "outbreaks" should be expected when children return to school despite masking and physical distancing, severe illness (even among unvaccinated children) is not to be expected. “The focus should be on protecting susceptible adults from potential transmission from unvaccinated school-age children, either by vaccinating these at-risk adults or separating them from other unvaccinated and/or potentially exposed individuals (children or adults),” Dr. Bailey says.

Keeping Kids Safe

Although children may present this disease in a mild form or even without symptoms, we always have to consider long-term effects as we are still learning about the long haulers disease of COVID-19, points out Carol Winner, MPH, public health expert and founder of social distancing brand Give Space

“To protect our children, we must vaccinate those of age, we must require those younger to wear masks starting at age 3, avoid unnecessary travel and hotel stays,” Winner says. She also recommends avoiding public pool areas and lockers, playgrounds, and family gatherings (such as reunions) where people may be unvaccinated. If they can’t be avoided, encourage your child to wear a mask. 

 “Letting our guard down and not vaccinating our over 12-year-olds or requiring masks for our aged 3 to 11 year olds will contribute to widespread infection, particularly in the new school year,” Winner warns. “We have to also remember that adults engage naturally with other adults more selectively and are more protective of their personal space and distance. Children kiss and hug and play very closely together which puts them at high risk of infection.” 

Kids across the U.S. were, and are, thrilled about the chance to return to summer camp, but the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over yet and it's imperative that parents continue to take necessary precautions in order to protect their children. Wear masks, get vaccinated, social distance when necessary, and a fun filled summer in nature can remain an option.

What This Means For You


Kids across the U.S. were, and are, thrilled about the chance to return to summer camp, but the COVID-19 pandemic isn't over yet and it's imperative that parents continue to take necessary precautions in order to protect their children. Wear masks, get vaccinated, social distance when necessary, and a fun filled summer in nature can remain an option.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. Li B, Deng A, Li K, et al. Viral infection and transmission in a large, well-traced outbreak caused by the SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant. medRxiv. Preprint posted online July 23, 2021. doi:10.1101/2021.07.07.21260122

  2. Illinois Department of Public Health. Public health officials announce more than 80 COVID-19 cases now associated with youth camp outbreak. Published June 28, 2021.