4-H campers sickened by norovirus; camp canceled for the week
MONTICELLO — The director of the 4-H Memorial Camp in Monticello said Saturday he felt he had no choice but to cancel the camp session scheduled to start Sunday after learning that it was norovirus that sickened campers and counselors.
Curt Sinclair said the Illinois Department of Public Health in Springfield notified him about 4:30 p.m. Friday that a sample from a sick staff member tested positive for the extremely contagious norovirus. By 5 p.m., he made the decision to cancel the session that was to begin Sunday and run through Thursday.
“I can’t run the camp on Sunday if they’re still contagious,” said Sinclair. “We all need to stay separate. They need to be resting back at home. To run camp would be irresponsible.”
Campers and counselors alike began showing symptoms of the virus — diarrhea, vomiting and general body achiness — early Thursday.
“From about 2 a.m. till 11 a.m. is when we were having most people ill. It ended up being about 10 staff members and then a little over 30 children,” he said.
Sinclair said there were 263 campers and 49 staff present last week. Another 275 campers were scheduled to start a new session Sunday.
Guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that after symptoms subside, a person can still be sick for another day or two.
“The CDC recommends that 48 to 72 hours after you feel better, you should refrain from working in close quarters and in food service,” he said.
While there’s no way to know how the virus made its way in to the camp, Sinclair said it was likely carried in by a camper who “did not practice good hand-washing etiquette. The likelihood that it had anything to do with the kitchen is very small.”
“It can spread very rapidly in a group setting with a lot of people. They’re very close, playing with the same hockey sticks,” he said.
In addition to an email to the families of the 275 children registered this week, Extension staffers in the approximately 30 central Illinois counties where the campers live took part in a phone-calling tree Saturday, Sinclair said.
“We have had really a very understanding response,” he said.
The sickness is a first for Sinclair, who said he’s in his 21st summer with the 4-H Memorial Camp.
Already the camp has been thoroughly cleaned, but Sinclair said there would be more of that while there are no campers. And when they return, staff will ramp up efforts to avoid a repeat.
“Instead of saying, ‘It’s lunchtime. Wash up,’ we will be supervising more closely because not every 9-year-old boy is going to do that. That’s the single biggest thing we can do,” Sinclair said.
Not only is the cancellation of the camp upsetting for the participants, Sinclair said it’s a big hit financially to the program.
“The 4-H camp operates entirely on fees from coming to camp,” he said. That’s $210 for non-4-H members and $180 for 4-H’ers. That means about $55,000 that will have to be refunded.
“That’s going to be quite a task to process refunds,” Sinclair said, adding he doesn’t think the loss of one session will jeopardize the program in any way.
“This response to this unfortunate outbreak of a virus is going to reinforce the trust of the public in what we stand for and how we run our operation. It was the right thing to do. (It) will benefit the camp long-term more than if we had tried to wing it somehow,” Sinclair said.