Four Programs, Nine Cabins Had Positive COVID Tests At Herzl

This is the post-script article in the Returning to Webster series, detailing how Herzl Camp got back up and running for the summer of 2021. To catch up: Part 1 Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Nine cabins in four of the five different programs at Herzl Camp had positive COVID tests, leading to the Saturday night decision to end the summer program three days earlier than scheduled, according to an email sent to parents Sunday morning. 

Camp families were notified of the decision late Saturday afternoon. 

“Out of an abundance of caution and with the health of your children our number one priority, our Medical Committee and Board of Directors have made this difficult decision to limit further spread of the virus,” Executive Director Gary Kibort wrote in an email to families.

It is being recommended that families have their camper tested for COVID as they have been exposed to the virus. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance is advising all people who have been exposed to be tested and quarantine. Camp is asking that families let them know the test results. 

Camp doesn’t know if the positive tests are the result of the Delta Variant, which appears to be more contagious and acts differently than the early virus. New data from the CDC came out Friday afternoon after six campers tested positive, showed that vaccinated people could spread the virus.

Campers have been picked up at camp throughout the day Sunday, rather than being bused back to the Twin Cities, for the health and safety of bus drivers. Camp staff have been working with families who need help making a plan if they live out of town, or if the parents are on vacation and unable to get to Webster. Once the decision was made to rely on parents picking up their kids, Kibort and Camp Director Drea Lear had reached out to camps they know that only rely on parents for transportation for help with a new and unknown logistical challenge.

Initially, the 5th- and 6th-graders in the Ha’atid program were going to be sent home on Aug. 1, as their program was the first one hit with the positive cases. Holly Guncheon, Herzl’s director of advancement, said that a camper had shown symptoms on Wednesday, and that camper had tested positive on a rapid test. They performed PCR tests on the whole program, and four addition came back positive. 

However, by Saturday afternoon, there had been more positive tests in other programs, which necessitated the closure.

As camp planning was going on, the decision had been made to keep the campers in pods of their cabins until the results of the PCR testing, which was done five days into each session, came back. Once all the tests came back negative, the pods were opened from cabins to full age-group programs. 

“We thought our biggest exposure risk was that the day five testing that we’d see a positive,” said Dr. Hope Frisch, Herzl’s co-medical director. “So we weren’t expecting this, almost three weeks in, to have a positive.”

After the first campers showed symptoms this week, Guncheon said that camp went back to day 1 protocols of doing two of three mitigation strategies: masking, being 6-feet apart and being outdoors. 

Initially, staff was not going to be able to leave camp on their days off. However, they had decided to allow staff to go to their homes in the Twin Cities as the science evolved — a decision camp said was made in consultation with their medical team. Staff that was vaccinated were told they were allowed to go off-property in low-risk situations, and those day-off activities needed to be low-risk as well. 

The first session, which was June 14-July 7, followed the same protocols that the second session had been using, and had no positive tests.

When the summer started, Guncheon said that the American Camp Association said that testing vaccinated staff wasn’t needed.

“We said, no, we have to [test],” she said. “We were testing and following recommendations.”

Frisch said that some COVID symptoms mirror what has commonly become known as “camp crud.” The medical team had determined for criteria for when to test those kids, and when a test wasn’t needed. 

“The first camper with a positive test had a high fever that wouldn’t really get better with Tylenol or Ibuprofen,” Frisch said. That led to the rapid test that came back positive, and was confirmed by a PCR in the Twin Cities after the parents picked them up. 

Guncheon said that they don’t know where the spread in camp started. They’ve been in touch with the Burnett County Health Department, which she said helped the camp access more testing and support. 

“I think we’ve all felt it in our own lives, where it seemed like the COVID was leaving, and now it’s, maybe coming back,”  said Guncheon. 

The two-day Family Camp that was scheduled to run Aug. 6-8 has been canceled. No decision has been made about the status of the five-day Family Camp, which is scheduled from Aug. 11-15, as the medical committee is waiting for the most up-to-date guidance before 

“All of us at Herzl Camp are both sad and disappointed that camp will end early. We are deeply grateful for these joyful days at the camp we love,” Kibort wrote. “We are also deeply grateful to you – our camp families – for your understanding and support.”

This series received 1st Place in the category Award for Excellence in Writing About Jewish Summer Camps from the American Jewish Press Association’s 41st annual Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Jewish Journalism.