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At least 93 cases of COVID-19 have been linked to Camp Judson, a popular Christian youth summer camp located in the Black Hills, the South Dakota Department of Health has confirmed.
On Aug. 3, state health officials said that about one-third of the South Dakota residents who attended the high-school camp at the camp, have now tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Four days after the first media reports of the outbreak at Camp Judson on July 27, the state reported that 61 campers and staff had tested positive for the disease. Most of the cases, 75%, were found in teenagers, health department DOH officials said.
On July 29, the state said that 32 campers and staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 after exposure at the camp west of Keystone; the higher number follows an initial state report that indicated that fewer than 10 positive cases had been discovered.
A state investigation into the event is ongoing, health officials said.
Health department spokesman Derrick Haskins also confirmed to South Dakota News Watch that the first case of COVID-19 that was found to be related to Camp Judson was reported to the department on Friday, July 24.
The department will continue to investigate the outbreak and notify people who had close contact with those who have tested positive for the disease. Camp officials had been cooperative with the investigation, Haskins said.
According to the camp website, the most recent outing was the Junior Camp for children in grades 4-6 held from July 19 to July 25. That outing followed the High School Camp, for youths in grades 9-12, held from July 12 to July 18.
The camp has closed and has canceled an outing scheduled for junior-high students set for July 26 to Aug. 1.
The outbreak comes just a month before many public schools in South Dakota are set to open for in-person teaching and learning on Aug. 27.
The First Baptist Church in Sioux Falls, which has ties to Camp Judson, reported on its Facebook Page on July 23 that three campers, three counselors and the camp director had tested positive for COVID-19. One person with close ties to the church had tested positive for the disease but had not attended church functions since returning to Sioux Falls from the camp, the posting said.
Camp officials released a statement to News Watch late in the day on Monday, July 27. The unsigned release said the camp was opened during the pandemic to provide “a cherished choice for families looking to slow down, take stock of what really matters, disconnect from technology and reconnect in real and meaningful ways.”
The release said: “While so many camps closed their doors for the summer, Camp Judson was able to welcome children and adults who sought a sense of normalcy and connection … we believe camp is important enough to the spiritual, emotional, mental and physical well-being of people that we needed to give them the option to attend camp.”
Camp officials also said that they began cooperating with the state health department as soon as they were notified that people who attended the high school camp held July 12-18 had tested positive for COVID-19. Parents were told within a day, according to the statement.
Camp Judson has operated since 1926 and hosts Christian retreats, day camps, and overnight camps throughout the year. So far during the summer of 2020, Camp Judson has hosted a variety of camps, including weeklong camps for high school students, a weeklong family camp and several day camps. Past weeklong outings at the camp have attracted hundreds of children and youths.
Camp Judson is located about 3.4 miles west of Keystone on Old Hill City Road. The announcement to cancel the upcoming Junior High Camp was made via Facebook on July 23.
The next upcoming outing, which has been canceled, according to the camp’s Facebook page, was the Junior High Camp set for July 26 to Aug. 1 for youths in grades 7-9. A Family Camp outing was also scheduled for Aug. 2-8. Cost to attend youth camps was $325 per child.
The camp website provides this biography of camp operators Tracy and Danie Koskan: “Tracy desires that Camp Judson be a place where disciples are made and equipped to live and love like Jesus. Tracy’s wife, Danie, is also highly involved in camp ministry through administrative support, cooking, media promotions and many other ‘as needed’ duties.”
The camp website and Facebook page contain many images of children and young adults engaged in camp activities such as sports, water slides, tug-of-rope, science activities and camp improvement projects.
The Facebook post announcing the closure of the camp’s upcoming Junior High Camp was met with sadness and support from online commenters. In response, Pat Parks of Rapid City wrote on Facebook: “You, your family, and all campers and staff are in my prayers. Camp Judson is a place like no other. Peace that only God can provide is my prayer for you.”
The camp’s web page, in the About Us section, notes that, “What began around 1926 with a vision to help young people come to know and grow in Jesus through a summer camp experience has continued to grow into a year-round ministry for youth, adults and families on 160 forested acres.”
A sign-up bulletin for the 2020 camp outings states that, “Since 1926, Camp Judson has given young people and families the experience of helping to build and live in a Christian community in which opportunities are provided for personal and group study, worship, work and play. Summer camp offers a break from the world of social media and electronics and invites people to engage in meaningful experiences. Here, we do things differently. We think more of Jesus and others and less often of ourselves. Campers forge genuine friendships, cope with real challenges and hear the truth that God loves them and has a plan for their lives. Caring adults mentor campers and model what it means to lead and love like Jesus. “
About Nick Lowrey
Nick Lowrey, based in Pierre, S.D., is an investigative staff reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A South Dakotan for more than 20 years, he is a former editor of the Pierre Capital Journal.