COVID-19 outbreaks lead to temporary closure of at least 3 Quebec sleepaway camps

Parents were scrambling Tuesday to pick up their kids after three sleepaway camps in Quebec were forced to temporarily shut down because of COVID-19.

Around 150 campers needed to be collected from Camp Ouareau in Matawinie, in Quebec's Lanaudière region, after an outbreak of nine infections.

"On the first full day, we actually had a young girl who actually threw up. So we sent her home. Then four days in, the parents informed us that she was COVID positive," said Jacqui Raill, a Camp Ouareau director.

Among those sent home are four girls who came from Mexico, some whose parents had to reschedule flights to pick up their daughters.

Most of the infections are among staff – and some were physically unable to work after getting COVID-19, said Raill.

As isolating all staff members and implementing new precautions became more difficult, Camp Ouareau decided to temporarily close altogether. The camp is hoping to reopen by July 13.

The virus in some cases was detected too late due to some false negative results from rapid tests.

"The unfortunate part of this year is that there is no allotment for residential camps to use PCR tests. Last year, every single camper, CIT (counsellor-in-training), and staff member had to have a PCR test," said Raill, who said she hopes the Quebec camping association can provide the camp with proper testing equipment in the near future.

The province’s camps association said last year all campers had to show a negative PCR test, but because access to those tests is now restricted, this year, they don’t.

"The PCR test is a biggie for us right now in terms of what makes the most sense and how can we reduce the exposure. Because once we're on our sites there’s significantly less risk you know, we’re only exposed to each other at that point," explained Shauna Joyce, vice-president of the association.

Raill said the move was "the right thing," because "our number one [priority] is to have happy and healthy campers."

Despite the recent outbreaks, Dr. Earl Rubin, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the Montreal Children's Hospital, says there is a difference between sleepaway camps and the Montreal community in general when it comes to COVID-19.

"At sleepaway camps, it's all young, healthy people. But more importantly than that, it's a closed environment where they're not going out and being in contact with the elderly, the immunocompromised, the vulnerable population," Dr. Rubin explained.

Having worked as a summer camp doctor for over 30 years, Dr. Rubin believes that such sleepaway camps should not be closed if children catch a cold with no serious symptoms, even without knowing whether it is COVID-19.

Nevertheless, Dr. Rubin has conducted PCR and antigen testing at earlier stages of the pandemic to make sure that COVID-19 spread was minimized among children at camps.  

The news comes as COVID-19 numbers increase across the province.

On Tuesday, the health ministry reported 20 more deaths and 147 hospitalizations in just 24 hours.

With files from CTV's Matt Gilmour and Kelly Greig.