MONTREAL — Summer camp season in Quebec has been cut short for hundreds of children who have been sent home due to COVID-19 outbreaks, only a few days after the start to some of the province's overnight camps.
Outbreaks, mostly among counsellors, have shut down at least three overnight camps across the province, Éric Beauchemin, with an association representing Quebec summer camps, said Tuesday.
"People were getting infected one after the other and before losing 25 of them, parents were asked to come and pick up their children," said Beauchemin, with Association des camps du Québec.
About 500 children and staff were sent back home over the past few days, Beauchemin said in an interview, adding that parents would be refunded for the missed days.
Overnight camps were allowed to reopen last summer after they were prohibited from operating in 2020 because of the pandemic, but Beauchemin said this year is different.
"Last year, we had mandatory measures such as PCR tests before arriving at camps, social distancing, masks," he said. "This year, we have recommendations."
The association was scheduled to meet with Health Department officials on Tuesday, and Beauchemin said he hoped to convince the government to reimpose some health orders, such as mandatory masking and COVID-19 PCR testing.
Quebec's Health Department, however, said in a statement on Tuesday that it "does not seem appropriate to systematically test all participants and employees, whether upon arrival at the camp or upon contact with a confirmed case." The department added that it was up to the camps' owners to decide whether to shut down in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak.
Beauchemin said the fact that there are little to no COVID-19 health orders in place compared with last summer, in addition to widespread staff shortages, is making the situation even harder to handle.
"We all had our guards down," he said, adding that there were no COVID-19 outbreaks during the summer of 2021.
"It's the first time we are dealing with a summer wave."
In Ontario, a large overnight camp outside Huntsville, located 215 kilometres north of Toronto, said it would close for several weeks due to an outbreak of COVID-19 among staff.
"Unfortunately, like all industries, the summer camping industry is not immune to potential virus spread as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect communities across Ontario and around the world," Ontario Camps Association executive director Joy Levy said in a statement Tuesday.
Camp Ouareau, in Quebec's Lanaudière region, reported nine cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, all among staff. Stephane Richard, the camp's director of operations, said employees started developing symptoms at the end of June, a week after the season's first campers arrived.
"It was a difficult decision to make, to close temporarily, but our priority is the safety of our campers and our staff," Richard said in an interview. He said he planned to reopen July 13.
Dr. Don Vinh of the McGill University Health Centre says the situation at camps, coupled with the rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations, suggests Quebec is experiencing a summer wave of the disease.
"The wave is now," he said in an interview Tuesday. "We need to mitigate the problem now by reimplementing some measures."
Meanwhile, Quebec reported a 147-patient rise in the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations on Tuesday. Health officials said 1,441 people were hospitalized with the disease, after 378 patients were admitted in the past 24 hours and 231 were discharged. There were 39 people in intensive care, an increase of three cases.
Vinh criticized the Quebec government for promoting a return to normal life without imposing health measures, such as proper ventilation and increased access to COVID-19 testing.
"We tried to go back to a normal life, in this case going back to camps," Vinh said.
"We should have done it safely and do things like request one or two negative rapid tests, make sure that everyone is adequately vaccinated … there should still be measures in place … so what it was, is pretend the pandemic is over when clearly it wasn't."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 5, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press