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Could Schools Take A Few Lessons From Summer Camps On Preventing COVID-19 Spread This Year?

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Maine Teen Camp

Tens of thousands of kids are getting ready to go back to school. Some have already started their classes and as a vaccine for young children is still not available, and the delta variant pushes case numbers upward again, the best way forward is not entirely clear. But some lessons might be gleaned from the summer where thousands of those kids went to camps and summer programs. Maine Public's All Things Considered Host Jennifer Mitchell spoke with Laura Blaisdell, a physician and a public health researcher who's compiling a report with the U.S. Center for Disease Control on how camps coped with COVID this summer.

The interview below has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mitchell: So tell us a little bit about the report that will be coming out - what are some of the findings that you're aware of already that might be useful in the coming months as schools trying to figure out how to hold sessions safely?

Blaisdell: Well, this summer, much like last summer camps were, as I've called them, the canary in the coal mine for schools, they really gave some very important lessons about how schools can operate safely. So the overarching lesson is that these programs can be held in person, but we have to be thoughtful, diligent, and use many different layers of protection, particularly as you mentioned, the fact that children less than the age of 12 don't have access to one of our very most important layers, which is vaccination.

So this research encompasses more than 20 camps across the state. And then you'd mentioned, of course, that the delta variant started showing up in the latter half of the summer. Did that change things going forward? Did you learn anything about you know how this more transmissible strain is maybe changing things?

I think one of the things that was really important for me to see is that delta, while it is more transmissible, doesn't act any differently when it comes to our public health interventions. It hadn't learned how to skip around a mask or go further or stay in the air longer. So that was very important to me. We did see a lot more cases of delta in the second half of the summer coming into camps, but those camps still operated successfully and safely, and that's an important aspect. And I think another really important thing that I'd like to share from my study, when we had high levels of vaccination in age-eligible children, those groups of children had a much more normal camp experience. So vaccination afforded them the ability to play without masking without distancing, and have that camp experience and hopefully a school experience that is more normal for them in the upcoming year.

So COVID cases did arise over summer camp. But you mentioned that by using different steps, outbreaks were averted and that those cases were were found. So what is the recipe that schools might need to follow to keep safe?

I think it is, it's more of a recipe than a silver bullet. No one layer, including vaccination, is going to prevent COVID 100% of the time. So what we need to do is be multi-layered. Many of us have heard this Swiss cheese model that each layer of public health interventions is like a layer of Swiss cheese, it has some benefits and some aspects of it that are not as strong. But when you layer them on top of each other, that's where the benefit comes. So you know, when we talk about masking or not masking in schools, or when we talk about vaccinating or not vaccinating, it's really no one intervention that we should be focused on. But it should be the package. It's the entire package of interventions, that includes testing, health screening each day, not going to school when we're sick, masking, distancing, good ventilation, hand hygiene, and identifying cases very early if we can to get them out of exposure to others. And then lastly, hopefully, our children will have access to vaccination, which is more of a like a layer of Cheddar cheese than Swiss, it's a little less holy.

What does that portend then for main schools that are already opening up? And there isn't a universal mandate of 'here are the steps that must be followed,' etc. And then of course, you're going to have interscholastic sports and away trips and various things like that. And right now we've got a bit of a patchwork of requirements.

I think you allude to somewhat of an experiment that we're doing this year in allowing local school districts or local institutions to make their own COVID protocols. While this plays out, I have a fear that without these sort of diligent, clear guidelines that we are going to see outbreaks and we already have in some schools that have reopened without that sort of thoughtful, competent package of COVID preventions. So, I think the major message of what I do why I do is because I want kids to be in person. And I know that they can be, but we need to create those really safe layered environments so that they can can be in person. Unfortunately the pandemic is not over for children, and it's not over for all of us, so we need to not change the game plan too much from last year's school as we head into the fall.