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Camp still in session

Nah-Jee-Wah remains open after camper dies of bacterial meningitis

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The camp community was shaken by the death of a camper from bacterial meningitis, but parents are confident that their children are safe at Nah-Jee-Wah. Photo From New Jersey Y Camps Website
The camp community was shaken by the death of a camper from bacterial meningitis, but parents are confident that their children are safe at Nah-Jee-Wah. Photo From New Jersey Y Camps Website

Despite the death of an 11-year-old camper at Camp Nah-Jee-Wah in Milford, Pa., New Jersey Y Camps (NJY) held visiting days as planned on July 16. 

“If you did not know the news already, you wouldn’t have known something had happened,” said Allan Chernoff of South Orange, whose twin 14-year-old daughters attend Cedar Lake Camp, the NJY camp for older children, also located in Milford. The twins are fifth-year NJY campers who started at Nah-Jee-Wah. 

Daniel Beer of Norwood died from bacterial meningitis at Bon Secours Community Hospital in Port Jervis, N.Y., on July 10. Three other boys in Beer’s bunk had shown signs of illness and were taken to the hospital, examined, and released. No one outside of the bunk got sick, according to Mark Keyes, public information officer for the Pennsylvania state police.

“Our hearts ache for the family who lost a child,” said Chernoff. “It’s incredibly tragic and the entire community feels for them.” Still, he and his wife, Robin, a registered nurse who worked in the infirmary at Nah-Jee-Wah when their daughters were campers, didn’t consider pulling the twins out of camp, nor would they have brought them home if the kids were still at Nah-Jee-Wah. 

“The camp is very well run. My daughters absolutely love camp,” Allan said. “We are not going to panic about our children. We are logical in how we approach decisions regarding our kids’ health. We are not going to be hysterical.” 

Tracy Levine, director of One Happy Camper NJ at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest, said that no parents had contacted her to find other camps for children who are currently attending a session at any NJY camp or who are scheduled to attend later this summer. 

Representatives from Nah-Jee-Wah declined to respond to NJJN. 

A letter sent to NJY parents explained that based on protocols from the Pennsylvania Department of Health, anyone who may have come into direct contact with the bacteria was given a prophylactic antibiotic and is being monitored. The camp said that even though children who were not exposed to the bacteria shouldn’t require the antibiotic, the medical staff would administer it to children at their parents’ request. Additionally, the camp brought in grief counselors for campers and staff.  

After consulting with their pediatrician, the Chernoffs did not have the antibiotic administered to their daughters. One parent of a Nah-Jee-Wah camper, who asked to remain anonymous, said she did not even call her pediatrician. “I trust the camp,” she said.

April Hutcheson, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health (who coincidentally attended URJ’s Camp Harlam), told NJJN that the camp did not need to be closed nor did campers have to be sent home as the infection was limited and did not meet their definition of an outbreak, which would be an infection among more than five people.   

“Neisseria meningitidis is a bacterium that can cause meningococcal illness. When we have cases where it is present, we give prophylactic antibiotics to people who have come in close contact. In this case, there was no larger public health risk,” she said. She explained that because of the contained environment of camp, all individuals who came in close contact could be “identified, monitored, and treated accordingly.” 

The type of bacteria that caused Daniel’s death exists in 10 percent of the population at any time, she said. “You and I could be carriers. What happens depends on the conditions in our bodies and whether there is an opportunity to develop an infection.” She added, “It is transmitted through droplets, like saliva.” 

While the American Camping Association “strongly” recommends camps require vaccinations for measles, mumps, and rubella diseases, its guidelines regarding meningitis vaccines focus on health workers, lifeguards, international travelers, and college students, rather than campers.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp declined to comment on whether camps should require meningitis vaccines for campers, “since guidelines for vaccines are set by the state and/or the CDC,” according to Alison Cohen, vice president of marketing and engagement.

Pennsylvania does not require the same vaccines at a private camp as it does for schools, where immunizations must be up to date or have exemptions, according to Hutcheson. The Centers for Disease Control recommends meningitis vaccines beginning at age 11 with a booster at age 16.

Allan Chernoff said that every girl in his daughters’ bunk cried after hearing the news about Daniel Beer during a nightly bunk meeting. But out of 20 girls in the bunk, he said, “None are leaving. Not one.”

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