Earlier this month, Chaya Sury Gold lay in a narrow bunk bed, surrounded by concerned friends at Rav Tov, a popular Orthodox Jewish sleepaway camp at the foot of the Catskill Mountains. The 13-year-old girl, fellow campers would later tell their parents, struggled to catch her breath as she complained of worsening chest pains.
A few days later, Gold’s parents picked her up from the camp and brought her back to their Williamsburg home. She saw a local primary care doctor on July 13th. The next morning she was dead.
The sudden loss has stunned members of Brooklyn’s tight-knit Hasidic community. They described Gold as a bright and vivacious teenager, beloved by her wide circle of friends and family, including grandparents who survived the Holocaust.
Some campers’ parents and health authorities say the camp’s operators have withheld information about the death and failed to follow pandemic protocols around testing. At a time when COVID-19 clusters are emerging at summer camps in New York and across the country, some parents fear the virus may be spreading at Rav Tov undetected.
“A girl died, and nobody wants to take responsibility to tell us if it was COVID,” said one Hasidic parent, who requested anonymity for fear of backlash from the community. “It’s layers and layers of silence.”
Based on interviews with health officials, it is unclear why Gold died, and it may never be known. The New York City Medical Examiner, which examined the body, has ruled Gold’s cause and manner of death “undetermined.” The spokesperson did not respond to questions about whether the victim received a post-mortem COVID test or chest exam with X-rays or a CT scan, which a forensic pathologist could do without an autopsy. Gold’s family rejected an autopsy because of a Jewish law against desecrating the body.
The health department in Ulster County, where the camp is located, is conducting an investigation and has not yet ruled out COVID-19 as a factor. They have not identified additional sick campers.
But health information at Rav Tov has not been forthcoming so far. Dr. Carol Smith, the Ulster County Health Commissioner, said the camp’s operators, Rabbi David Rosenberg and his son Hershy, had not alerted local health authorities of the girl’s death.
“We definitely are monitoring that and made it clear that we want to know if there is a subsequent illness at the camp,” Smith said. “That was the understanding we had with our camp operators throughout the county from the first day. You hope that all of these operators would be compliant.”
Severe illness among children is still rare. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics found that fewer than 2% of pediatric COVID-19 cases result in hospitalization, and just 0.03% are deadly.
But the situation has highlighted the challenges that health authorities may face when young people return to school in the fall. As the delta variant spreads through the country, COVID-19 cases are now rising in children, even while those under 13 remain ineligible for the vaccine. At a summer camp in Columbia County, adjacent to Ulster, 31 children have tested positive as of Thursday, according to The New York Times.
And as cases steadily rise, so too will hospitalizations for everyone. Nationwide, pediatric COVID hospitalizations are up 43% week-over-week, leading to 700 new admissions in the past seven days alone. Overseas in the U.K., the reopening has quadrupled the case rate among 10- to 19-year-olds over the past five weeks, pushing it to 990 cases per 100,000 kids in this age range. British pediatric hospitalizations are moving toward their second wave peak.
Governor Andrew Cuomo has mandated a lengthy list of COVID-19 protections in the state’s summer camps. But while those rules dictate that any camper or staff receive a diagnostic COVID-19 test within 24 hours of showing symptoms, the Ulster Health Department has no record of this happening.
“To our knowledge, there is no test that was done when she presented with an illness or when she saw her private doctor or in the medical examiner’s morgue,” Smith said in an interview.
The Rosenbergs run four camps in the county, which are permitted for more than 3,000 children plus staff. According to Dr. Smith, none of the four have reported a positive COVID-19 test all summer. Two people with connections to Rav Tov told WNYC/Gothamist that the camp was not performing regular screenings, despite assurances from staff otherwise.
Reached by phone, Hershy Rosenberg declined to answer questions about the camp’s health protocols.
It’s not the first time the camp has faced scrutiny. Last summer, The Times Union reported that they were accused of defying a pandemic ban on sleepaway camps in New York. The crowded conditions at Rav Tov, a local police chief wrote to the town supervisor at the time, “put hundreds of lives at stake.”
When asked if she was worried about what an undisclosed outbreak might mean for the general public, health commissioner Smith said yes, echoing recent comments from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that this has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated.
In New York’s Orthodox communities, which were hit hard by the virus last spring, many entire families were already infected. According to Dr. Rabbi Aaron E. Glatt, the chair of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau, that experience has left some families with the mistaken belief they’re no longer susceptible to COVID-19.
“There was tremendous loss. Now, there’s an opinion out there that I won’t get serious COVID again; therefore, I don’t need to get vaccinated,” he said.
“The message we have to get out is the value of these vaccines,” Glatt continued. “We believe that life is of paramount importance.”