After outbreak, new precautions at Camp Sabra


There was a sense of excitement among the 90 percent of campers expected to return to Camp Sabra on its scheduled reopening of Tuesday, June 30. An outbreak of the H1N1 (“swine flu”) virus forced the residential camp of the Jewish Community Center (JCC) to close down for a week. The 10 percent who were not returning had issues due to the timing rather than fear of the virus, said Margaret Schatz, JCC Director of Marketing and Communications.

Returning campers were expected to find a new protocol in place: Their temperature was taken before boarding transportation for camp and it had to be below 100 degrees in order for them to go to camp. The protocol applied to the staff and cleaning crew as well. Parents were asked to start taking temperatures of their campers on Sunday as a precautionary measure.

“Camps around the country have been dealing with the effects of the H1N1 pandemic,” said Jenny Wolkowitz, St. Louis Consultant for Tips on Trips and Camps and a Jewish Light board member. Muscular Dystrophy Association officials made the decision to cancel the rest of their 47 camps after several campers became ill with the suspected virus. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also released special guidelines for camps where children are living in close quarters with one another and the disease can spread quickly.

Camp Sabra in the Lake of the Ozarks had already taken extra precautions before campers arrived for the first session and had a plan and protocol in place – along with a “super duper supply of hand sanitizers” Schatz said. She said nothing like this had ever happened before at the camp to her knowledge.

“After many conversations, and with a plan and protocol in place, the staff was totally prepared to deal with the crisis and executed it flawlessly,” Schatz said.

By the end of the first week of camp, which began on June 15, several campers presented flu-like symptoms. They were immediately isolated and tested for the H1N1 virus. The results came back negative. When more campers came down with symptoms, the camp consulted the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the CDC, which came to conduct additional testing. One camper and one staffer had confirmed cases of the H1N1 virus with more than 40 of the approximately 350 campers and staff showing flu-like symptoms.

“With the safety, health and wellness of our campers and staff as our first priority, we made the difficult decision to suspend camp for a week,” Schatz said. “It was important to break the cycle of infection.”

The virus can continue to infect people up to “2-8 hours after being deposited on a surface” according to the CDC’s website.

The camp was completely vacated by June 24 to provide four days for the virus to go dormant. Even Camp Director Terri Grossman and Assistant Camp Director Mitch Morgan “hunkered down in Columbia (Mo.)” leaving the camp totally empty except for the wildlife. The staff and cleaning crew returned Monday, June 29 to completely disinfect and cleanse the camp.

Parent Bob Olshan says the camp handled things very well in light of the situation. He said he received an e-mail from staff there telling about the first flu cases. Though he didn’t receive the e-mail announcing the camp closure, he did receive the broadcast telephone call with the same information. There was a follow-up e-mail giving further details, said Olshan.

Olshan’s son Dovran wasn’t sick at camp but returned home with a slight cough and hoarse voice, which he said he got because he “yelled a lot.”

“He did not seem to have a fever when I felt his forehead,” Olshan said. The family even went out to dinner the night Dovran came home.

However, the fever hit later that evening. A trip to the doctor confirmed Dovran had the H1N1 virus. “Luckily it is a pretty mild case” and everyone else in the family is fine, said Olshan. They are keeping Dovran home for a week as recommended by his doctor and the CDC guidelines Olshan reviewed on the Internet.

“There is a lot of hype out there concerning this virus,” Olshan said. “We learned a lot about what to do and not do. We are not concerned about sending Dovran back to camp, as long as he is well.”

Rachel Persellin-Armoza is on staff at the camp teaching Israeli folk dancing and Israeli culture. Her son Shakked and her nephew Eitan Haziza are also at the camp. Both boys were not ill at camp but did get sick when they got home with the “normal flu.”

“It was a smart move to close the camp,” Persellin-Armoza said. “They took the time to do it right, talk to everyone and get organized.”

She said there were three nurses, a doctor and a social worker to help campers and staff as they dealt with the situation. The camp was very open and shared information from the beginning, said Persellin-Armoza.

Campers were sad when their friends got sick and couldn’t participate in activities anymore, Persellin-Armoza added. The night before everyone had to leave, the camp held a dance party.

“It was great to feel the ruach of camp return before we all had to leave,” Persellin-Armoza said. “Everyone is excited to go back.”

The decision to close the camp came at some cost, but the health, wellness and safety of the staff and campers are always the most important priority said Schatz.

“At this time, the JCC is working closely with the Camp Sabra management team to assess the financial impact of having to suspend operations for a week,” Schatz said. “Additional details are also being worked out.”