According to directors of area Jewish camps, this summer has so far been much like any other: a mix of outdoor activities during the day, roaring campfires at night, and a hefty dose of Jewish life and learning woven in-between.
But there's been one key difference this season: Despite having taken extensive precautions to ensure the health of campers, a number of facilities in and around the Philadelphia area have had to send children home to protect the rest of the camp population against possible flu outbreaks.
Overall, more than 60 members of these camps have gone home with high temperatures or influenza-like illnesses.
Many officials have reported checking temperatures daily, and any child or staff member registering 100.5° or higher has been sent home. (Those unable to return to their families have been quarantined in infirmaries.)
Anyone sent home has been — and will be — permitted to return after the seven-day isolation period recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As of Tuesday, Camp Harlam in the Poconos had temporarily dismissed 48 campers and six staff members since the session began on June 30. Of those leaving, 10 were diagnosed with influenza, according to Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, chief program officer for the Union for Reform Judaism, which runs the camp.
"At a certain point, we have to assume that it's Influenza A and treat it accordingly," he said. "The health and safety of our kids is our primary concern. We want to be sure that we are erring on the side of caution."
That phrase, "erring on the side of caution," was repeated by a number of different camp directors, including Rabbi Todd Zeff of Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He said that 11 children were sent home within the first 10 days.
"We don't know who has the flu, we just know who has flu-like symptoms," said Zeff.
Those who did become ill, he said, "reported to us that the first 48 hours or so was the flu — not the worst flu in the world, but fever and body aches — and then after that it was kind of just time to veg out."
A Few Jokes at Its Expense
In addition to daily temperature checks, various people in charge reported that they were making hand sanitizers widely available.
At B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp, where two youngsters were sent home shortly after arrival, hand sanitizing has become so commonplace that a reference to the practice made it into every skit the children performed during a recent program, reported camp director Lewis Sohinki.
In addition to having sanitizer in all buildings, Sohinki said that temperatures will be monitored every day during the summer.
Toby Ayash, executive director at Pinemere Camp, said that her facility has been "very, very lucky" not to have any cases. But she said, "I'm waiting, because it is getting closer and closer in the area for it to strike us."
She said that other facilities near hers have had participants come down with symptoms, so that a scheduled day of games against another camp — she wouldn't say which one — had to be canceled because of the flu there.
A number of camp leaders said that in cases where someone is sent home, the family of that child's bunkmates is notified, the bunk is disinfected, and parents are given the option for their child to begin taking TamiFlu to help ward off infection.
Despite what might seem like cause for alarm, many parents appear to be taking the whole thing in stride.
Beth Berman, director of early childhood education at Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, will send her 11-year-old daughter Samantha to Camp Harlam in two weeks for the second session. After hearing reports that attendees were being sent home, she called officials to check in.
"I just want to know what their plan is," said Berman. "I'm wondering, is this flu going to be horrible by week four or five? I'm just wondering what they're going to do to make the second session better."
Despite her concerns, however, she said she empathized with the children affected by the disruption in camp life.
"I feel so bad, because these children wait all year," said Berman. "You're talking about this limited 7- or 8-week camp. Samantha would be heartbroken to even miss a day, let alone if she had to be quarantined for a week."
Dr. Denise Gotsdiner Clibanoff gets to see things from both sides — she's a mother, but she's also an on-site doctor at the Perlman camp.
She praised the camp's "vigilance" in temperature testing both before and after the buses arrived at camp, and said that may be one reason Perlman has been affected less than some of the others.
The biggest medical issue she's facing right now, she said, is splinters.
But that doesn't mean the flu isn't on her mind.
"As a parent, yeah, you're concerned," she said. "As a doctor, I know that being sick with the flu is not the worst thing in the world." She added that the larger concern isn't how sick individual kids get, but keeping the rest of the population safe in order to ensure the long-term viability of the camp.
Many directors and officials have reported that they were unsure whether or not the crisis has "plateaued" or would continue.
Said Kleinman: "I stopped predicting the future a week or two before camp opened!"