The souvenirs of summer camp are usually sunburns, scrapes and, if you’re really unlucky, a stomach bug or strep throat. This summer, Stacy Kosub’s daughter, Emerson, came home with COVID-19.
On Saturday, June 28, Kosub dropped off her fourteen-year-old daughter for a two-week session at Timbers, Pine Cove’s overnight camp for eighth- and ninth-graders in Tyler. Across its campuses, the Christian camp hosts more than 40,000 campers per year on a rotating basis, with more than 200 at Timbers any given week. Kosub’s brother had decided to have his kids sit out camp this year because of the pandemic and canceled their sessions, but she felt like that was an overreaction and everything was safe. The camp had emailed detailed safety plans, including mandated face coverings, the use of hospital-grade cleaners, smaller activity cohorts, temperature screenings, and on-site medical teams to monitor symptoms.
When Pine Cove called her just days after drop-off to share that a camper in Emerson’s cabin had a fever, Kosub wasn’t concerned: at least one kid is bound to get sick at camp every year—pandemic or not. Following its COVID-19 protocol, Pine Cove sent the camper home and quarantined the cabin. Shortly thereafter, Emerson began to have a headache and muscle soreness, but neither symptom seemed out of the ordinary given that she was spending her days outdoors under the Texas sun. Then on Thursday, she came down with a 99-degree fever. She was immediately isolated and the camp called her parents: They were given twelve hours to come from Wichita Falls and pick up their daughter. Emerson’s dad arrived at the camp late that night and immediately took her to get tested. Within a few hours, her test came back positive.
Emerson wasn’t alone. Pine Cove started the summer at 75 percent capacity, per Governor Greg Abbott’s health protocols for youth camps, and with no reported cases of COVID-19 across its ten Texas locations. But its safety precautions didn’t prevent the virus from sweeping the camps, which self-reported more than one hundred cases between campers and staff by July 6. The camp has not confirmed an exact number of current cases, but has temporarily suspended four of its locations—including both in Tyler—due to COVID-19 clusters. Last week, the camp adjusted its self-reported data on its website, replacing specific case counts with generic language indicating specific weeks in which “some … staff and campers were impacted by COVID-19.”
Pine Cove’s vice president of marketing and communications, Susan Andreone, says that the camp has expanded communication about the cases with parents of campers, including holding biweekly video updates. The general language remains on the website, she said, to “provide a big picture … to future campers and those still considering coming to camp, without confusing or overwhelming them with details that did not impact them.”
According to Pine Cove, 80 percent of sessions across its camp locations have been unaffected by the virus and there have reportedly been no related deaths yet. Andreone did not confirm current case totals in the camp. “As the summer has progressed, we have continued to learn, get better and adjust as needed in our contact tracing and how we communicate with our families,” she wrote Texas Monthly. “Transparency with our camper parents has been paramount.”
Pine Cove is far from the only camp challenged by the coronavirus. Missouri-based Kanakuk Kamps made national headlines for an outbreak among more than 80 campers and staffers. In Texas, Sky Ranch, an hour east of Dallas, paused camp for two weeks after a series of positive cases, and Spicewood’s T Bar M, 45 minutes west of Austin, closed for several weeks. As case totals rise at camps across the state, they might serve as a warning to public officials who are pushing for the reopening of schools. While children with COVID-19 often exhibit milder symptoms, the CDC confirms that they can still contract and spread the virus.
George Roberts, the CEO of Northeast Texas Public Health District, the health agency serving Smith County, said Pine Cove first reached out to his department in the spring about opening plans and has been in touch consistently throughout the summer, proactively reporting cases and shutting down weeks of camp when necessary. According to his correspondence with the camp, Pine Cove has seen “1.2 percent of [their] campers test positive for COVID and all have recovered within seven to 10 days with mild symptoms.” Roberts commends the camp’s containment efforts and said his personal threshold for concern would be a 10 percent rate. He said his experience working with the Sky Ranch and Pine Cove camps gives him more confidence in school reopenings.
“It seems like, in terms of an overnight camp, the sleeping arrangements and common bathrooms appear to be a major way the virus is spread. It makes [health officials] feel actually better about school starting in the fall,” he said. “They’re in the same classroom but they’re not sleeping in a cabin.”
Dr. Jeffrey Starke, a professor of pediatrics and infectious disease at Baylor College of Medicine, said in areas with a high rate of transmission, camp will inevitably lead to new cases, but mitigation is possible with adherence to the CDC guidelines for summer camps.
Roberts believes there are benefits of learning to “live with the virus” and proceeding with normal routines until circumstances make that infeasible. “I’m in the camp of I think you need to keep going as long as you can,” he added. “My messaging right now is, the virus is out there and we have to learn how to live with this virus.”
But for some campers, the summer has been anything but normal. Mia Matin, a sixteen-year-old camper at Shores—Pine Cove’s Tyler camp for grades ten through twelve—was nervous about attending this year, and her dad, a doctor, was apprehensive. But her excitement outweighed any fear: it would be her ninth year at Pine Cove and her two weeks would be the only time all year she would get to see her camp buddies, including one of her best friends who lives outside of Texas. She arrived on Sunday, July 12, and two days later, her counselor delivered devastating news: all campers had to leave the following morning after nineteen kitchen staff members were sent to get tested and five came back with positive results. Matin was in shock.
“A lot of girls immediately started crying,” she said. “It was just a really hard moment. We stayed up until 3 a.m. talking with each other, trying to get to know each other more before we had to leave.”
On Thursday, she received a text from one of the camp counselors, who had tested positive too. Matin tested negative after returning home to Southlake and has heard that, so far, one other cabinmate tested positive. Pine Cove offered campers at Shores the opportunity to reschedule, but with school coming up Matin says she’s too busy to go another week.
A number of parents who picked up healthy campers agree with the decision to have opened the camp. Rockwall-based Nicolette Ethridge sent her ten-year-old daughter to camp for the first time last year, and despite her husband’s initial hesitance, decided to again this year. “If there’s one place where she’s going to feel comfortable, it’s at church camp,” Ethridge said. “I think it was all worth the risk because she had such a good time and the kids all had such a good time.”
But for Stacy Kosub, the risk quickly turned to regret. After Emerson tested positive for COVID-19 in Tyler, she tested positive again back home in Wichita Falls. Stacy quarantined with her son in her sister’s guest house, while her husband risked exposure to the virus and quarantined with her daughter. After sixteen days and $1,000 worth of tests, Kosub was finally reunited with Emerson and her husband last weekend.
Though her daughter quickly recovered from her mild symptoms, Kosub was shaken by the experience. “I feel so terrible. I feel like I did this to her,” she said. “I’m the adult; I should have known.”
Kosub keeps looking at pictures and videos from camp, agonizing over mask slipups, the worship nights with singing and dancing in close proximity, and games of dodgeball with kids throwing balls that they’d touched at each other’s faces. “What I realize now is that there was no way to keep those kids safe the way the camp is set up,” she said.
Kosub regrets not following her brother’s plans and receiving a full refund. With school starting in a few weeks, she knows she won’t be able to keep her socially active daughter at home but is already bracing for the first football player or dancer to test positive and shut everything down again.
“[Pine Cove] went forward trying to make a business decision and we’re all doing that,” she said. “We’re all trying to figure it out. … But if I had to do it over, I wouldn’t send her.”