Sunburns and shots: Popular Camp Wapsi adjusts vaccine policy

Camp Wapsie requires immunization records as precaution

Mark Zerr of Cedar Rapids walks with his family while registering them at YMCA Camp Wapsi near Coggon, IA on Sunday, Jun
Mark Zerr of Cedar Rapids walks with his family while registering them at YMCA Camp Wapsi near Coggon, IA on Sunday, June 9, 2019. The camp hosts thousands of youth campers every summer over the course of around 10 weeks. (Ben Roberts/Freelance)

COGGON — An hour before check-in for the first overnight week at Camp Wapsie, the excitement among the soon-to-be campers was palpable.

Dozens of families already were waiting in line the first Sunday in June, suitcases and sleeping bags lying in the grass. Groups of children have broken from the line to commandeer the carpet ball table and toss a football between cabins.

This group will be the first of roughly 2,000 campers to spend part of their summer at YMCA Camp Wapsie, joining the estimated 10 million young Americans around the country this year to take part in the time-honored tradition of summer camp.

But with ongoing concerns involving the largest measles outbreak the United States in 25 years, Camp Wapsie and other camps around the country are tightening policies on vaccines.

For the first time this year, parents will be asked to provide a copy of their child’s immunization records — the same information required by schools — to officials before the start of each overnight week, Wapsie Executive Director Paul Denowski said.

No child without a complete immunization form will be sent away, but camp officials are taking steps to be prepared in case of a communicable-disease outbreak.

“We want to do what we can do to protect kids who come to camp,” Denowski said. “We’ve learned from what other places have done to help keep kids as healthy as possible, so we prepare for scenarios as they come about.”


With these records on hand, it would expedite the process public health officials would have to take if a measles case were reported, said Heather Meador, Linn County Public Health clinical services branch supervisor.

Knowing this information would help public health officials quickly determine which campers and staff may be at risk for infection.

“It’s great if you have all the kids’ immunization records because we will see if there’s kids that need to be quarantined because they’re not vaccinated, and also will know the kids that can continue with the program because they’re safe,” Meador said.


While waiting to move into their cabins for the week, Cedar Rapids siblings Wyatt, 14, Jesse, 12, and Winter Zerr, 8, said they’re looking forward to spending time with friends and numerous rounds of ga-ga ball — a variation of dodgeball that’s become a Camp Wapsie staple, played in an octagonal pit.

“It’s just fun,” Jesse said. “There’s always new things to do every year.”

Beyond the outdoor activities, Mark and Kim Zerr said their children also take away lessons on being independent. Mark said their youngest, Winter, spent her first week at Wapsie the summer after kindergarten.

“She learned right away that she could survive a week without mom and dad, which to me is pretty cool,” he said.

The Zerrs said the worst they have to worry about as parents are bumps and bruises and the rare broken bone. For the most part, the only “illness” their children have dealt with at camp is homesickness.

But they support the policy change, saying that, with as many campers and staff that come through the grounds, there is a real possibility for an infection to spread quickly.

“It seems like a valid point anymore,” Kim said.


The number of measles cases in the United States is at an all-time high, reaching 981 cases in the first five months of 2019, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many public health officials say the cause is from parents opting not to vaccinate their children due to personal beliefs, often spurred by misinformation online.

Because of that, summer camp directors in New York — a state that accounts for the majority of measles cases in the United States this year — are now turning away campers if parents cite religious or philosophical objections to vaccinations.

But officials at area camps, including Amanda Brenneman with Camp Courageous in Monticello, do not support instituting similar policies in Iowa.

“I know the Iowa Department of Public Health and those agencies that manage communicable diseases remain proactive,” said Brenneman, assistant nursing director for Camp Courageous. “If we follow their guidelines and remain up to date on that information, I don’t think there’s any reason for us to become reactive in a nervous way.”

Iowa has had two reported measles cases in 2019 — both individuals from the same household in Northeast Iowa who were unvaccinated. One individual had traveled to Israel, where the disease was transmitting.

State officials said they were an isolated incident, and no other cases have been reported since April.

Camp Courageous is a year-round respite care and recreational facility for individuals with disabilities, and accepts campers of all ages. In many cases, adult campers have been coming to the facility since they were children.


Camp Courageous has required immunization records for a number of years, in part because of the specific nature of their campers, Brenneman said.

“With our population, there potentially can be anxiety involved or miscommunication and a non-verbal camper might bite somebody,” Brenneman said. “We need to know the hepatitis B status, their tetanus status as well as the status of our staff.”


The American Camp Association, the summer camp accrediting body, encourages organizations to screen campers for communicable diseases beforehand — a requirement at both Camp Courageous and Camp Wapsie — and to have a disease management plan in place.

Disease management plans were put into action at Camp Wapsie a few years ago when a strain of the flu called H1N1 spread among a few campers, Denowski said.

Camp Courageous closed for a week this past summer after several staff members fell ill with norovirus. The camp was thoroughly cleaned and officials wanted to trace the cause of the spread, Brenneman said.

“There’s a lot of very close contact, so infections can spread readily throughout camp,” Linn County Public Health’s Meador said.

The American Camp Association also recommends all individuals be fully immunized, with an exception to those with medical exemptions — but at the same time, the organizations states camps ultimately should look to their state and county health officials to provide a healthy camp experience.

The Iowa Department of Public Health has not changed its recommendations for standard of care, except to encourage providers to evaluate individuals traveling abroad and to update patients’ measles vaccine if necessary.

In Iowa, “we don’t have any codes and mandates that kids have to have certain immunizations to attend camp,” Meador said.


Mark and Kim Zerr said they don’t support turning away children from activities such as summer camp if they don’t have a completed immunization record. While she understands the importance of immunizations, an incomplete record should be the reason a child can’t experience life to the fullest, Kim said.

“I wouldn’t want a kid to miss out,” Mark added. “There’s always special circumstances and I don’t claim to know them. I trust people like (Wapsie Executive Director Denowski) to figure out what makes sense on a case-by-case basis. Having (immunization) records seems like a good compromise.”

Reuters contributed to this article.

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