At least 180 coronavirus infections in three states have been traced to an Illinois church camp for teenagers and an affiliated men’s conference that did not require attendees to be vaccinated or tested for the virus, according to an investigation published on Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There have been no deaths linked to the outbreak, but five of those infected required hospitalization, according to the C.D.C., which noted that all of those hospitalized were unvaccinated. Roughly 1,000 people in four states were ultimately exposed to the virus by people who attended the two events, which took place in mid-June.
The report, which expands on an earlier investigation by the Illinois Department of Public Health, highlights the perils of ignoring established safety guidelines for summer camps, business meetings and religious gatherings during a pandemic that continues to pummel the United States.
And with the Delta variant causing significant spikes in infections across many states, some public health officials have expressed concerns about large Labor Day gatherings that do not include masks, or gate-keeping measures for admission, like testing or proof of vaccination.
Sarah Patrick, the acting epidemiologist for the state of Illinois, said the outbreak illustrated the role that children can play in transmission of the virus — and the importance of ensuring they are included in efforts to curb its spread.
“We’ve learned that kids, who some had thought might not be able to easily spread disease between each other, can actually be the fire starter that increases transmission beyond their immediate contacts and into the community,” she said.
In the report, more than 120 of those infected were camp and conference attendees, and most of the others were members of their immediate households, researchers said. Twenty-nine of the 180 people infected were fully vaccinated against Covid-19, which is caused by the coronavirus, also known among epidemiologists as SARS-CoV-2.
“This investigation underscores the impact of secondary SARS-CoV-2 transmission during large events such as camps and conferences when Covid-19 prevention strategies, including vaccination, masking, physical distancing, and screening testing, are not implemented,” the C.D.C.’s report concluded.
Over the summer, as the highly contagious Delta variant spread, there were outbreaks at youth camps across the country. In New York, at least 31 of 550 campers tested positive for coronavirus during sleep-away camp in July. In Texas, over 125 teenagers and adults tested positive at a church-run camp after an indoor event. Kansas’ health department also reported multiple outbreaks tied to camps in and around the state.
Youth camps that have embraced testing and masks for attendees — and contact tracing and isolation for the infected — have fared much better than those that have taken a more laissez-faire approach, according to a number of studies.
Understand Vaccine and Mask Mandates in the U.S.
- Vaccine rules. On Aug. 23, the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for an increase in mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies have been increasingly mandating vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in indoor public places within areas experiencing outbreaks, a reversal of the guidance it offered in May. See where the C.D.C. guidance would apply, and where states have instituted their own mask policies. The battle over masks has become contentious in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
- Schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for education staff. A survey released in August found that many American parents of school-age children are opposed to mandated vaccines for students, but were more supportive of mask mandates for students, teachers and staff members who do not have their shots.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get a Covid-19 vaccine, citing rising caseloads fueled by the Delta variant and stubbornly low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their work force.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations, although enforcement does not begin until Sept. 13. Teachers and other education workers in the city’s vast school system will need to have at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, without the option of weekly testing. City hospital workers must also get a vaccine or be subjected to weekly testing. Similar rules are in place for New York State employees.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would seek to make coronavirus vaccinations mandatory for the country’s 1.3 million active-duty troops “no later” than the middle of September. President Biden announced that all civilian federal employees would have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel.
The Crossing, a nondenominational Christian group that organized the five-day youth camp and a two-day men’s conference, did not ask participants to be vaccinated or tested, nor did it require mask wearing during the gatherings.
The “What to Bring” page of the camp’s website includes water shoes, sleeping bags and the Bible, but makes no mention of masks. Campers were between 14 and 18 years old, making them eligible for the vaccines.
The phone number listed on the website for Crossing Camp was disconnected on Tuesday. Email and voice mail messages left by a reporter seeking comment at the church’s main office in Quincy, Ill., were not immediately returned.