HomeLifestyleSummer Camp Kids Are America’s Coronavirus Test Subjects

Summer Camp Kids Are America’s Coronavirus Test Subjects

Even before Howard Salzberg announced his intention to open the gates of Camp Modin in Belgrade, Maine, for the summer — defying a drumbeat for cancellation during the coronavirus pandemic — he was getting pitched. And pitched and pitched and pitched.

By the companies selling masks, face shields, gloves and massive tents like you’d see at an outdoor wedding. By the companies pushing plans for chartered planes and buses to transport campers from Miami, Boston and New York. By the state-of-the-art-thermometer guys. By the hand-sanitizer station people.

But mostly there are entrepreneurs selling services to test for the virus. “This has been the Wild West of testing,” Mr. Salzberg said. “Everyone wants to do testing.”

Summer camp is one of the first industries with an urgent deadline to figure out a way to bring back a large number of people to one place. It’s something of a laboratory for companies, some hastily formed, trying out the consumer testing market. Schools, universities, corporate offices and entertainment venues are being pitched now as well. They’ll be watching to see how opening works out for summer camps.

“Camp is the guinea pig,” Mr. Salzberg said. More precisely, the guinea pigs are children, who are statistically less vulnerable to suffer from acute symptoms of Covid-19.

Lori and Joey Waldman have operated Camp Blue Ridge in Clayton, Ga., since 1992, after taking over from Mr. Waldman’s parents, who opened the camp in 1969.

The Waldmans considered pitches from two companies and fielded other offers too, including one bragging of a connection to a friend working for President Trump’s administration who could help them get tests, and another who claimed to know Vice President Mike Pence’s brother (which, this person claimed, could help them secure tests that require just 30 seconds to process).

“They are crawling out of the woodwork,” Ms. Waldman said.

It all seemed too good to be true, and the Waldmans decided not to open camps this summer as normal. “We just decided that this is so beyond testing,” she said, “and nobody has the answers.”

In states where government health officials are permitting sleepaway camps to operate, the camps are striving to create quarantine-like conditions, under which children and most staff members remain on the grounds throughout the summer.

There are still plenty of uncertainties. This is where testing services come in. They are being marketed by companies like Rapid Reliable Testing, which was created in April.

“This is a hot, hot topic,” said Ari Matityahu, 30, one of two men handling the company’s camp outreach, during a webinar last month that more than 25 camp directors Zoomed into.

The other man, Joe Hoenig, 56, who told the webinar attendees that he is a former camp director and current camp owner, was hired as a consultant by Rapid Reliable Testing to help make connections to camp directors.

Mr. Hoenig emailed many in the field. “I know these are tough times for camps and tough decisions that will need to be made. TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE! We all need to be prepared if and when we have the green light to open Camp this summer. We are a large Health Care company that is doing Covid-19 testing for large corporations and organizations,” he wrote. (A spokesman for Rapid Reliable Testing said he could not provide names of those “large corporations and organizations.”)

Rapid Reliable Testing is a subsidiary of the company that owns Ambulnz, a private fleet of vehicles driven and operated by health care providers for nonemergency transport, often taking patients back to nursing home and rehabs after medical procedures.

“Think of us like the Uber for ambulance,” said Mr. Matityahu, the vice president for strategy and special projects for both companies.

During the peak of the coronavirus crisis in New York in March and April, Ambulnz was subcontracted through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response efforts for nonemergency transport of patients, some of whom had Covid-19. The company created a protocol for testing its employees.

But the rest of Ambulnz’s business was hurt by stay-home orders that diminished procedures that weren’t urgently needed.

Faced with the prospect of laying off part of its work force, and after being asked by a nursing home to help test its employees, Ambulnz executives decided to start another company that would meet anticipated demand for consumer testing and also give opportunity to idling E.M.T.s and other health care workers, said Anthony Capone, the chief technology officer for Ambulnz and Rapid Reliable Testing.

To conduct the tests, Mr. Capone, 32, collaborated with Mako Medical, a six-year-old laboratory company in North Carolina that processes medical tests including routine blood work and genomics testing.Since March, Mako Medical has processed more than 100,000 coronavirus tests, said the company’s chief operating officer, Josh Arant, 31.

Mr. Matityahu (hired by Ambulnz in January by Stan Vashovsky, 47, the company founder) had the idea to aim first for the summer-camp market. “I have a passion for camp,” said Mr. Matityahu in an interview.

He also exuded excitement for camp to the participants of the webinar, telling them, “I’ve been a camp director for the last 9 years.”

(A representative of Camp Moshava in Honesdale, Pa., said that Mr. Matityahu had been a camper, counselor and an aquatics director. Mr. Matityahu also led large groups of teenagers on summer travel tours to Israel for several summers,. Most recently, he worked for WeWork, overseeing special projects in the office of its now disgraced former C.E.O., Adam Neumann.)

During the webinar, Mr. Matityahu reminded the camp directors of their problem — “Never, ever do any of us on this call want to be known as ‘the Covid Camp,’” he said — and offered a solution.

Investing in test services sold by Rapid Reliable, which he said would cost $137.50 per test, will help achieve the goal of “mitigating the risk of Covid-19, the spread of it,” he said. The test results, he said, would take no longer than 48 hours.

He said that optimally camps would retest each camper upon arrival and several times more through the summer: six times for a seven-week session and four times for a five-week session.

“We’re here to provide services with our lab partners like Mako Labs that will offer a turnkey solution to help you test not just your campers but your entire staff, front end and back end of camp,” Mr. Matityahu said.

Last week, Rapid Reliable sent an email to prospective camp clients saying it would drop its price to about $90 per test.

Through Mako Medical, Rapid Reliable is offering a test that involves a health care professional inserting a swab midway up a child’s nose — “like the Hamptons for the virus,” as one doctor put it — and twirling it to collect a sample.

Most of what we know about coronavirus comes from adults with symptoms. “It’s very difficult to make a statement that the data between children and adults is 100 percent comparable or 100 percent not,” Mr. Arant said. “But we haven’t seen a vast difference so far.”

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Many of these tests can have high rates of false negatives. Some camps will use a variety of tests: before the session begins, upon arrival and multiple times through the summer.

Vault Health is another company marketing test services to camp directors. Before concentrating on coronavirus testing for summer campers, Vault Health provided men who were reluctant to see a doctor care for sexual and cardiovascular health through a telemedicine app.

“We’re the guy-necologist,” said Jason Feldman, 48, one of the company’s founders. “Women have good access to health care that men don’t have.”

He said research showed that 70 percent of men don’t get routine annual physicals and that, on average, men are dying five years younger than women. The idea was: “If we could help them with their physical performance, sexual performance and mental performance,” he said, “maybe we could also help them prevent heart disease. We’re not the online pharmacy selling sex drugs.”

In his work for Vault, Mr. Feldman has developed a relationship with RUCDR Infinite Biologics, a lab services business run out of Rutgers University that has developed an at-home collection kit.

Mr. Feldman realized that the Rutgers lab might help him help camps to open, so he shifted his focus from men’s health. “It was serendipity,” said Mr. Feldman, who previously worked for The Body Shop and until last year was head of the Prime Video Direct division at Amazon.

Here is his pitch to camps: They provide their campers’ parents with a link to the Vault platform and parents sign up and request a coronavirus test. A kit will then arrive by UPS overnight. It’s a plastic tube you spit into, much like the consumer DNA test kits familiar from popular genealogy websites.

Parents enter into a Vault Zoom room and connect with a health care provider who will watch the child spit into the tube, verifying that the child is providing the sample. The online health professional also makes sure the child provides enough spit and properly reseals the tube. The sample gets dropped into a UPS overnight box and lands at the Rutgers lab in New Jersey. Results come back within 48 hours.

“Right now we don’t have any data that should suggest that the test should perform any worse in children,” said Dr. Alex Pastuszak, 41, a urologist who is Vault’s chief clinical officer.

Each test costs about $150.

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced earlier this week that the state will allow day camps to open on June 29 and will decide “in the coming weeks” if sleep-away camps will be permitted to operate.

Jay Jacobs, 64, owns six camps, three sleep-away and three day camps, in New York and Pennsylvania. He plans to open the day camps and one sleep-away camp, relying on services from Vault and Rapid Reliable Testing for campers and staff members. He will pay for the testing of his staff. Parents will pay for the testing of campers before they leave for camp, and the Mr. Jacobs will pay for subsequent tests conducted on the campers.

Amid the uncertainty, Mr. Jacobs has been trying to calm the nerves of parents by sharing the details of his testing approach in several long emails to parents. “While we are choosing to make a different decision than some of our colleagues, we more than respect their decisions. We just believe that with resources, knowledge and a lot of hard work, we can open and run camp safely,” wrote Mr. Jacobs, who is also the chairman of the New York State Democratic Committee.

But camps will only be the guinea pigs for a short time. The rest of us are up next.

One camp in Wisconsin had hoped to test incoming campers with a saliva test that offers results in 30 minutes — but this month told parents it was moving to a testing Plan B.

“The test we had planned to use at the bus site appears to no longer be an option for us,” the camp alerted parents this month, “as the demand for this test has dramatically increased due to our now competing with large organizations such as the N.H.L., Hollywood studios, and Amazon.”

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