By David Shepardson and Carl O’Donnell
(Reuters) – The top U.S. health agency on Friday relaxed guidance for mask-wearing at summer camps, saying that camps do not need to require children to wear masks or physically distance if all participants have been fully vaccinated.
The new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention settles a question that has been top of mind for the parents of tens of millions of children who attend camp each summer in the United States.
“We think the possibility of having a camp setting where everyone is fully vaccinated will be a reality by mid- to late-summer,” said Commander Erin Sauber-Schatz, a team lead at the CDC, in an interview with Reuters.
The CDC also updated guidance for unvaccinated camp attendees on wearing masks outdoors. Camps should no longer require masking outdoors in most circumstances for vaccinated or unvaccinated children, according to the new guidance.
The CDC previously required camp programs to mandate use of masks and physical distancing even for fully vaccinated teachers, staff and children. The agency has been under sharp criticism recently for being overly cautious in its masking guidelines.
The CDC still recommends that summer camps where everyone is not fully vaccinated require masks indoors and in crowded outdoor spaces. It also recommends that they employ other standard COVID-19 prevention strategies, including physical distancing, testing, and limiting attendees contact to a fixed cohort of other campers.
The more stringent recommendations apply to all summer camps that host children under 12 years old. U.S. regulators have not yet authorized a COVID-19 vaccine for that younger age group.
The CDC does not offer specific guidance for how camps should determine which attendees are fully vaccinated, Sauber-Schatz said. The agency expects that camps will work with state and local public health officials to develop those procedures, she added.
Sauber-Schatz said breakthrough cases among fully vaccinated camp participants are highly unlikely.
“Based on the evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccine, we are very comfortable with the recommendations we have made,” she said.
The agency’s latest guideline revision comes after the recent authorization and rollout of Pfizer/BioNTech, vaccine for 12-15 year old’s.
The vaccine was authorized for the younger age group earlier in May and the country has since vaccinated nearly 59% of Americans over the age of 12, according to latest data from the CDC.
Earlier this month, it said fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks outdoors and can avoid wearing them indoors in most places but stuck to more conservative guidelines for schools as children below 12 will not get their shots yet.
The agency previously recommended all children and staff should wear makers at all times except when eating, drinking or swimming.
Speaking on the CDC’s annual budget before a House subcommittee, Director Rochelle Walensky said changing guidance quickly as more information becomes available has been a challenge.
“This is complex. And as we change things, things that we knew a year ago are different now because we have much more information and they continue to evolve,” she said.
She added that it is better for children to be outside than inside. “My own kids were home from camp last summer, and I want camps to be open this summer.”
(Reporting by David Shepherdson in Washington and Carl O’Donnell in New York; additional reporting by Manojna Maddipatla in Bengaluru; Editing by Alistair Bell)