As schools begin reopening around Maine this fall, education officials could perhaps learn a lesson or two from Maine’s overnight summer camps.

A new national study of four Maine camps details how they prevented the transmission of COVID-19, while similar camps in other states suffered major outbreaks.

Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland and medical director at one of the camps, said the facilities coordinated to devise similar outbreak prevention strategies that included testing, masking, quarantine, physical distancing and making sure students stayed in small groups of 10-20.

“We needed to throw the entire kitchen sink of public health intervention to prevent the spread of a disease like COVID-19,” said Blaisdell, lead author of the study.

Blaisdell said while schools are different than summer camps, some of the strategies, such as masking and small groups – called cohorts – would apply.

“Schools and summer camps are different institutions,” she said. “But consistently and diligently employing layers of public health interventions could decrease spread in other settings, including schools.”

Most schools in Maine are choosing a hybrid approach to reopening in which students attend school in-person part of the week, and also stay in small groups of 15-20 students.

Trip leader Gordon Anderson power washes an outdoor basketball court at the Camp Winnebago summer camp in Fayette in July. The boys camp was preparing to open with a reduction in the number of campers and other changes to comply with guidelines for helping prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Four Maine camps were cited in a U.S. CDC study for their successful efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. The study did not identify the specific camps, to protect privacy. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

The study, authored by Blaisdell and four other scientists, was published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday.

The successful prevention strategy in Maine stands in contrast to summer camp outbreaks reported across the country, including in Texas, Missouri and Georgia. In the Georgia outbreak, more than 260 campers out of the 344 tested were positive for COVID-19.

Although 80 percent of Maine’s 100 overnight summer camps did not open this year, there were no outbreaks among those that did. Summer camp in Maine is a long tradition, and campers come from all over the country, especially Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey. At the four camps studied, 1,022 campers and staff arrived from 41 states and a handful of foreign countries.

Blaisdell said that in addition to the strategies employed by the four camps in the study, guidelines developed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and other state agencies helped prevent outbreaks at the other open camps in Maine.

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, said in an email response that everyone worked together to create a safe environment at the summer camps.

“This study shows that positive outcomes are achievable, even in challenging circumstances, when science guides the creation of safety protocols and when practitioners adhere to those protocols,” Shah said.

According to the study, a combination of pre-screening and testing both prior to starting camp and while the camps were operating resulted in a total of seven campers and staff testing positive. One of the tests of a camper later proved to be a false positive.

Campers were told to quarantine with their families prior to arrival, and 15 attendees of one camp were instructed to quarantine while waiting for pre-screening test results to come back. When the tests came back negative a few days later, they were released from quarantine.

The four camps that were part of the study are not being identified to protect patient privacy, Blaisdell said.

Blaisdell said all of the staff and campers who tested positive for COVID-19 were asymptomatic.

She said that’s different from other infectious diseases, such as the flu. When people are most contagious from influenza, they feel sick and tend to stay home. She said what makes COVID-19 so difficult to contain is that people who feel healthy can have the disease and be contagious.

“You can’t pick or choose one strategy. You have to layer several strategies all day every day, every layer to have the best success. We know we can’t provide a COVID-free environment,” Blaisdell said.

She said by keeping students in groups of 10-20, only the affected group would go into quarantine if someone tested positive, rather than the entire camp.

Dr. Jeff Vergales, a Virginia pediatrician who was the medical director at two Maine summer camps and another author of the study, said once the campers and staff arrived and tested negative, each camp turned into a “bubble.”

“From an epidemiological standpoint, we could control who was coming in and out,” Vergales said. “We had an advantage of knowing about what these kids were doing day in and day out.”

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