What’s Your Camp’s Vaccination Policy?
Last year’s measles outbreaks in the U.S. led summer camps to review their rules about vaccines and immunizations.
Measles outbreaks across the country in 2019 prompted summer camps to look at how, or whether, they should accommodate vaccine-hesitant parents and could reassure parents of vaccinated children that they won’t be exposed to the disease.
“Like everything else, the issue of what camps are doing about vaccinations falls on a bell curve — there are some camps doing very little and some are requiring detailed vaccination records to be updated on an annual basis,” explains Harry Rhulen, founder and CEO of Crisis Risk, a risk management company. He notes that, generally, corporate-owned camps enforce tighter vaccination restrictions than a smaller, family-owned camp that has been running for many years. “Sometimes these camps will tell me that they’ve been doing it a certain way for 100 years and haven’t had a problem, and our response is always one single word: ‘yet.’”
Impact of New York outbreak
Susie Lupert, executive director of the American Camp Association (ACA) of NY and NJ, says licensed summer camps in both states have to keep vaccination records and campers should be immunized according to state requirements or be able to present a medical or religious exemption. However, as a result of the measles outbreak in Brooklyn last year, camps contacted parents to encourage them to immunize their children and many camps refused to accept religious exemptions to protect the overall camp population from a measles outbreak. New Jersey schools and camps may have to follow suit; a pending bill would require all students attending public schools to be vaccinated, regardless of religious beliefs, health conditions, or any other exemptions that were previously accepted. The bill has angered some parents and is currently stalled in the legislature.
“Last year was a unique summer for camps. Many had to revise their vaccination policy for the summer, only accepting campers and staff that were vaccinated for measles and if a camp did accept unvaccinated children, they were tracking the campers for symptoms,” Lupert explains. “Camp owners and directors were working closely with their healthcare staff to ensure they understood the symptoms of measles and that a procedure was in place to seek medical care if measles were suspected.”
Lupert says many camp directors reached out to the families who hadn’t vaccinated their children and told them that if they didn’t vaccinate for measles, their child would be unable to attend camp. “Surprisingly, many parents ended up vaccinating,” she recalls.
Local camps respond
According to Andy Pritikin, owner and director of Liberty Lake Day Camp in Bordentown, NJ and past president of the ACA, many camps struggled to make a decision about vaccinations last summer and will continue to face challenges this season. “When we heard about the outbreak in New York last year, we were hoping for some sort of governmental decree in our state that would advise us how to handle this issue, but we were unfortunately pretty much left on our own since there were no confirmed outbreaks in New Jersey,” he explains. “It was left up to camp directors to decide whether to tell families who have been with us for years that they’re no longer welcome in our camp community because their children aren’t vaccinated, at the risk of making other parents nervous.”
The camp ultimately decided to make vaccinations mandatory, but consulted with its insurance company to come up with a compromise for one family of two unvaccinated campers — they had to take a blood test to prove that they weren’t carriers of any sort of communicable disease before they would be permitted to enroll. “The general rule for camps is to follow what public schools are doing, but when it seems like nobody really wants to take a stand on the issue because it will draw the ire of many parents, it puts camps like ours in a precarious position,” he adds. “My son battled leukemia, and every time he received another round of chemotherapy, it wiped out all of his previous vaccines, so when we thought about the fact that there are some kids walking around who are unprotected and extremely vulnerable to these life-threatening diseases, not because of religious or personal reasons, but because of a serious health condition, our camp had to make the choice to require vaccinations.”
Some camps did not need to change their policies. “Our policies remain unchanged from previous years. All campers are required to submit information regarding their health and wellbeing, including their immunization status,” says Mary Garrett, nurse for Tatnall School of Wilmington, DE and its summer camp.
Tatnall follows the immunization guidelines for Delaware, and any family who chooses not to immunize their child must provide immunization-exemption forms.
Delaware Nature Society camps also follow public schools’ lead, which require medical documentation, including immunization records. “Campers are also not allowed to attend if they have a fever,” says Emily Knearl, director of advocacy and external affairs for the Delaware Nature Society.
Benchmark Camp, the summer offering of Benchmark School in Media, PA, requires camp families to comply with state requirements for vaccinations and though they are not required to submit medical records, they must provide details around medical needs such as conditions and allergies and complete emergency contact information.
“We’re glad to say that we have not experienced parents raising concerns about vaccination requirements,” says Alyce Callison, director of marketing and communications at Benchmark School.
At the summer camp of Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, PA, campers are asked to submit a health history, but they do not maintain immunization records on file. A full-time nurse on staff and counselors receive training to monitor for symptoms of illness. “This is how we’ve always done it, and we haven’t fully discussed making vaccines a requirement,” says Katherine Clayton, the school’s summer program coordinator. “The issues we run into the most often don’t have anything to do with disease, but making sure we keep our campers with severe food and other allergies safe.”
Wilmington Montessori School in Delaware notes that medical policies for its summer camp programs do include vaccination records, but it also has a full-time nurse on staff and has instituted policies for children with severe allergies, who must have their rescue medication on site if they wish to attend camp, for example.
“Our policies have gotten more specific as the prevalence of allergies and illness seems to be on the rise,” says Tracey Gable, director of Montessori enrichment for the school.
Camp policies may continue to vary by state or even by region when it comes to medical and vaccination records. “If a parent is concerned, the best advice I can give is to ask a lot of questions. Speak to your pediatrician and the camp director regarding their vaccination polices, make sure there’s a nurse on site, and then make an informed decision that’s in the best interest of your family,” Gable concludes.
Jennifer Lesser is a freelance writer.