Delta, Division, and a Diversity of Guidance: Navigating Uncertainty in the Age of COVID

December 13, 2021
Sami Grover
camp staff wearing mask at wood pile

Back in the summer of 2020, some camps embarked on an important yet uncertain adventure: They decided to operate during the heart of the pandemic.

At the time, there was much speculation in the press and in public discussion about how this adventure would end. And yet camps did what camps do. They developed innovative, multifaceted strategies to manage and minimize the threat of infection, including, but not limited to, the following:

  • Universal testing before arrival
  • Masking when in close contact
  • Pods and cohorts and other forms of limiting mixing
  • Increased outdoor programming
  • Enhanced cleaning protocols

By the end of the summer of 2020, many were breathing a profound sigh of relief. Among the camps that followed protocols set out by bodies like the American Camp Association (ACA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infections were few and far between — and there were no reports of mass outbreaks or super spreader events. (As multiple national news stories emphasized, the same cannot be said of camps that chose not to follow these protocols.)

In 2021, as vaccines became more available and we learned how the virus spreads, more camps chose to open. And again we saw a pattern where multiple layers of protection made it possible to operate relatively safely, while still retaining much of what makes camp special in the first place.

Now, however, we face additional challenges with the spread of new variants, such as Delta and, more recently, Omicron. Here's what we know.

Delta:

  • Delta appears to be twice as transmissible as previous strains (CDC, 2021).
  • It is infecting children and young people at a much higher rate — recently leading to a record number of hospitalizations (Borter, 2021).
  • While the vaccines continue to protect against severe illness and death, breakthrough infections are occurring — and vaccinated individuals can pass on the virus to others.

Omicron:

  • Both the World Health Organization and the US have classified Omicron as a Variant of Concern.
  • Omicron appears to be easily transmissible, but the jury is still out on transmissibility in comparison to the Delta variant. However, the Omicron variant is spreading quickly within the US.
  • Current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalizations, and deaths due to infection with the Omicron variant, but breakthrough cases in fully vaccinated people are likely to occur (CDC, 2021b).

In addition to the public health challenge of the virus itself, camps are also navigating a challenging social environment that includes potential mismatches between state, federal, and local authority protocols and guidance; social divisions and disagreements over safety protocols; as well as the potential for legal threats if camps are found negligent in their duty of care.

This has led many camps to question what they should be doing, especially in circumstances where local or state guidelines may differ from those recommended by the CDC or ACA.

According to John Feasel, corporate counsel at The Redwoods Group, we should step away from the emotionally charged discussions and look dispassionately at what we know — namely that a careful, robust, and multilayered approach to prevention is not only possible, but has so far proven highly effective at limiting infections. This fact isn’t just important in preventing infections, however. It’s also important in protecting a camp from financial, legal, and reputational threats too. And while the legal implications vary from state to state, and are somewhat complicated by so-called liability shield legislation that has been passed in many jurisdictions, the fact is that the protection this legislation offers is both limited and relatively untested at this stage of the pandemic:

“While 30 of the 50 states have passed some form of liability shield laws related to COVID-19 — some that are specific to businesses in the healthcare industry, some that afford some degree of protection to all businesses — these shield laws are far from certain, and all contain exceptions in the event of the gross negligence or willful/wanton misconduct of the business. At this point, given our knowledge of the virus, failing to take any sort of remedial action could be considered willful misconduct.”

In addition to the uncertainty around liability shields, Feasel says, camps will also need to navigate a diversity of guidance and requirements from different legislative bodies. In these circumstances, his recommendation is to follow the most robust set of protocols and standards that apply:

“Even in states or regions where there may be efforts to regulate against mask or vaccine mandates, or other safety measures, camps generally have the autonomy to operate as they see fit — and it is always going to be best to follow the most robust set of credible protocols available. That might mean some inconvenience or added expense, but you don’t want to be faced with shutting down camp or explaining why your camp had an outbreak, even while others around you stayed open.”

Undoubtedly, camps are going to face challenges from parents, campers, or community members who do not agree with their policies. But as Meredith Stewart — a Redwoods consultant and former camp professional — also points out, that is likely to happen whatever stance a camp decides to take:

“It’s a sad fact that this pandemic has become politicized, and that we live in decidedly divided times. That means whatever stance your camp chooses to take — whether it’s universal masking, vaccine requirements, or leaning more toward camper and parental choice — you are likely to have some families and staff members who disagree with you. Our advice in this situation is to stick with the science, and to err on the side of caution.”

Ultimately, navigating the moment we find ourselves in requires us to ground our programming decisions in robust science, best practice protocols, and transparent and values-based communications that explain not just the policy decisions we are making, but the reasoning and evidence that went into making those decisions in the first place.

References

Borter, G. (2021, August 16). Children hospitalized with COVID-19 in US hits record number. Reuters. reuters.com/world/us/children-hospitalized-with-covid-19-us-hits-record-number-2021-08-14/

CDC. (2021, August 26). Delta variant: What we know about the science. cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/delta-variant.html

CDC. (2021b, December 7). Omicron variant: What you need to know. cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/variants/omicron-variant.html

Sami Grover develops safety-related content for The Redwoods Group and is the author of We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now, an exploration of the role of personal responsibility in solving the climate crisis.

Photo courtesy of Camp Center Stage in Livermore, Maine