At least 25 campers and staff members at Trout Creek Bible Camp near Corbett have tested positive for COVID-19 — the first camp in Oregon to report an outbreak.
The disease was first detected July 18 when a staff member tested positive for the novel coronavirus, and the camp shut down for the season July 21. The outbreak has grown to a total of 11 campers and 14 staff members — all age 20 or younger, according to Multnomah County health officials.
The camp’s executive director, Joe Fahlman, said the camp diligently followed all requirements set forth by the Oregon Health Authority. Those include daily temperature checks of all campers and staff, frequent hand washing, hand sanitizer stations spaced throughout the 265-acre grounds and dividing children into static groups of 10 campers or less who didn’t mingle with campers from other groups.
“We had many parents who were very thankful,” Fahlman said. “They said ‘Thank you for doing this.'”
Under rules set forth by Gov. Kate Brown and the Oregon Health Authority, campers until late last month couldn’t be required to wear masks — and most didn’t, Fahlman said. Most of the camp was held outdoors, where transmission is less likely.
The outbreak raises serious questions about whether schools, which would likely be held almost entirely indoors, can safely reopen in Oregon and across the nation. Flare-ups across the country this summer — including 260 overnight campers and staff who tested positive at a Georgia summer camp and more than 80 at an overnight camp in Missouri — have sparked heated debate.
The Oregon Health Authority hasn’t reported any other outbreaks at summer camps in Oregon, although the agency says it won’t make public positive tests at camp or daycare settings unless at least 30 students attend and at least five cases have been detected.
Shannon Thompson said her 12-year-old son is among those who learned he was infected with coronavirus after attending Trout Creek. He spent a week at the bible camp and tested positive July 21, four days after he left.
Thompson said her son’s experience has completely changed her mind about whether K-12 schools should restart in-person classes this fall. The governor has said schools won’t reopen until Oregon’s coronavirus numbers improve.
Thompson said she now agrees with the governor that the prevalence of COVID-19 needs to drop in order for schools to reopen in-person.
“The camp said they were taking every precaution they could, and he still got it?” Thompson said. “Five days at summer camp and he picked it up.”
Thompson, a mother of four who lives in Fairview, said her son’s experience was an ordeal for the whole family. The boy had to isolate in his bedroom for a grueling 10 days out of fear he’d infect the rest of the family.
He’s now stuck quarantined at home for another two weeks, she said, after consulting the health department. He wears a mask whenever he steps outside his bedroom, she said.
Thompson said the low-grade fever and dry cough have subsided but the body aches still remain. She said the ones in his chest are the scariest.
She worries she’ll have to repeat the entire process if another one of her children is infected while attending school.
“I can’t imagine doing this over and over again,” Thompson said.
Trout Creek Bible Camp normally runs as an overnight operation but opted to continue as a day camp this summer in light of the governor’s order in May prohibiting sleepaway camps in Oregon. The camp, which celebrated its 75th year, is situated in the Sandy River watershed, just southeast of Oxbow Regional Park.
In a typical year, about 325 campers in grades second through 12th attend each week. This year it was slimmed down to about 150 or fewer. More than 100 counselors and other staff also attended each week, said Fahlman, the camp’s executive director.
Fahlman said the first inkling that something was wrong came July 16 when a staff member who didn’t work with children started feeling sick and went home. Two days later, on July 18, the staffer tested positive and the camp notified Multnomah County’s public health department.
By the next day, Fahlman said he’d learned of three more positive tests but said Multnomah County officials allowed the camp to continue for a new session starting July 20.
Fahlman said he notified incoming families and staff and gave them the option of bowing out but many decided to attend.
By July 21, a counselor-in-training who had stayed home that week tested positive. The camp made the decision to shut down at the end of the day voluntarily, Fahlman said, even though county officials hadn’t ordered it.
County spokeswoman Kate Yeiser verified Fahlman’s account that the camp closed voluntarily.
After receiving the news of the outbreak, the county didn’t conduct a blanket testing of campers and staff — leaving the true number of people infected with the virus unknown.
Yeiser said the county doesn’t recommend that asymptomatic people exposed to the virus get tested, but instead says they should quarantine for 14 days. Yeiser said that’s because even if someone tests negative, they’d still be asked to stay away from others for 14 days to be sure they don’t have the virus and aren’t contagious.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 40 percent of people with COVID-19 never show symptoms.
Fahlman said even though they didn’t have symptoms, some staff sought coronavirus tests. He said those who were infected either had mild symptoms or none at all.
Thompson, the mother of the 12-year-old, said she’s upset she didn’t learn about the outbreak directly from the camp. She said she learned about it from a relative, who sent her children there the following week. It’s only then that she went to the camp’s Facebook page and website to read about what it had posted.
“I knew I was taking a risk by sending my son to summer camp,” Thompson said, but she thinks the camp could have been more stringent about safety by requiring staff and campers to wear masks. She also criticized the camp for the lack of notification.
Fahlman said staff and campers weren’t required to wear masks, although a minority of them did.
Only after camp started for the summer did Oregon’s governor and the Oregon Health Authority issue a statewide indoor mask mandate starting July 1 for people ages 12 and older. Fahlman said campers only went indoors for short segments of the day, such as for chapel or meals.
By July 15, Brown expanded the mask requirement to outdoors when people could not maintain a distance of six feet of others. By July 24, Brown again expanded that to children ages 5 and older.
But Fahlman said he checked with Multnomah County public health officials, who told him to continue to follow posted state requirements specifically for summer camps. He noted that those summer camp requirements didn’t mandate that staff or campers wear masks until July 24, three days after the camp closed.
The camp has received an outpouring of support from many families on social media. Chris Preiss, who described himself as a former staff member and now parent of children who attended the camp, placed no blame about the outbreak on the camp.
Preiss wrote that all the parents who sent their children to the camp made the decision “knowing fully that there was risk for our kids regardless of all the safety measure taken …(w)hich can be said of every decision we make right now from going to the grocery store to having your immediate family over for dinner.”
He said he appreciated Fahlman’s meticulous nature. “Thank you,” Preiss wrote, “for adapting camp this year to give my kid the best chance of having a camp experience in these crazy days.”