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Testing for Swine Flu's Just One More Thing to Do Before Camp

July 2, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, Staff Writer
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Noah Ritz gets his temperature checked before boarding his bus. Photo by Jordan Cassway

The temperature on the morning of June 28 hovered just below 80°, but that wasn't the number B'nai B'rith Perlman Camp staffers were interested in.

As children from across the Philadelphia region gathered in the parking lot of the Plymouth Meeting Mall to board the one bus headed to the Poconos camp, the eager youngsters were met by camp officials wielding a digital thermometer that was swiped across each child's forehead for an instant reading.

"I'm clear," said 12-year-old Noah Ritz of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose temperature was safely below the 100.5° that would have kept campers off the bus.

Ritz seemed to barely notice the extra scrutiny; he was all smiles, focused on getting back to camp and seeing his friends.

Swine flu was recently upgraded to a pandemic by the World Health Organization and, although it doesn't seem to inspire the panic it did initially, the virus has gradually but persistently made its way into the Jewish community.

With summer now under way, camps across the country have reported outbreaks of the virus. At least nine cases were confirmed at two Jewish camps in Texas, and a Georgia camp has two. Many more cases are suspected as well, and a camp in California has closed for the summer because of the virus.

Two Reform-movement camps delayed the start of the summer session due to concerns about the virus. A third has one confirmed case, but is operating normally.

Area campers headed for a summer of fun didn't only get a temperature check before boarding the bus, they were quizzed on recent symptoms, including coughing, aches, fever and vomiting. They also received a lice check upon arrival at camp. Many families knew to expect the tests at the bus stops, thanks to heads-up e-mails sent by facility directors.

If someone does come down with the flu, camp directors and sponsors say that they are more than prepared.

Rabbi Elliott Kleinman, chief program officer for the Union for Reform Judaism, which runs Camp Harlam in the Poconos, said that like many other camps in the area, space is available to isolate children for seven days, if need be, in line with recommended guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The procedures are different for each camp depending on capacity, so if the camp can treat three or four kids in isolation," it will, said Kleinman.

He added that if the number of students who become ill "exceeds capacity to keep them isolated and provide good care for them, we'll invite parents to take them home for a few days."

At Pinemere, also in the Poconos, associate director Rachel Steinberg said that counselors and staff did a pre-session in-service program with representatives from the Pennsylvania Department of Health about the details of swine flu.

In an e-mail to Perlman Camp families, camp director Lewis Sohinki said out that bottles of hand sanitizer would be provided throughout the camp and in each bunk, and that children would be instructed to use it at the dining hall before all meals. They will also be instructed to wash their hands frequently, and staff will instruct campers on how to cough and sneeze into their elbows or a tissue.

Many other establishments are using similar strategies to keep youngsters healthy.

While camp organizers remain vigilant about the threat of illness, they are principally focused on the task at hand: infusing young people with an appreciation of Judaism. That's particularly true this season since enrollment at many camps is up, despite the recession.

"I think there's been a resurgence of excitement when it comes to Jewish camping as a way to inculcate the kids with a love of Jewish community, Israel, Jewish friendship, Shabbat and all things Jewish," said Rabbi Todd Zeff, director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

The swine-flu virus, which continues to spread two months after the outbreak was first identified, is a variant of influenza that can be fatal in a tiny fraction of cases.

Though seasonal flu outbreaks tend to drop off dramatically when warmer weather hits in the spring, the CDC reported higher-than-usual levels of influenza rates through the second week in June.

The disease mostly affects younger people, according to the CDC.

During the academic year, schools were seen as a major breeding ground for the virus.

As a precautionary measure, two weeks ago, the Foundation for Jewish Camp organized a series of conference calls with camp directors to discuss preventive measures.

Rabbi Eve Rudin, who directs the foundation's department of camp excellence and advancement, said that approximately 10 Jewish camps have been affected by the virus, although she stressed that camps do not report to the foundation, and that her information was gleaned entirely from media reports.

"I think that currently, swine flu is the exception, it's not the rule," said Rudin.

Parents at the Perlman Camp send-off didn't seem overly fazed by the increased health scrutiny. In fact, many said that they were in favor of the new measures.

"I love it," Audrey Friedel of Merion said as she said goodbye to her daughter Melanie. "How could you not love it? Because otherwise you'd have to go and get them."

For the kids, it was just one more item on the check-off sheet before the temporary freedom they find when they are away from home, and many treated it with the same nonchalance as loading their luggage.

There were, after all, more important things to deal with, whether it was finding a good seat on the bus or reuniting with old friends.

As the bus pulled away, parents and siblings waved goodbye to those they wouldn't see for another four weeks or more.

Steven Katz, chairman of the board of Perlman, kept the event in perspective for those left behind.

"All right, parents, say goodbye," he hollered out. "Vacation starts now!"

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