COVID-19 cases first contracted by a pastor and his wife ended up spreading to 35 others who attended events at their rural Arkansas church that resulted in three deaths, a troubling report revealed Friday.
An additional 26 cases in the community occurred among people who had contact with those who participated in the church events, according to the study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of them also died.
The study was released the same day President Donald Trump demanded churches and other houses of worship reopen for services amid the coronavirus crisis. He deemed religious services “essential” and threatened to override governors who ignored his orders for health and safety reasons. Legal experts don’t believe he has the authority to do so.
The church in the CDC study was identified only as “Church A” in a rural Arkansas county of 25,000 people.
The report found that more than a third of 92 people who attended events at the church from March 6 to 11 contracted confirmed cases of COVID-19, and three later died. The pastor, the first known case along with his wife, led a Bible study group at the church before he developed symptoms, according to the study, “High COVID-19 Attack Rate Among Attendees at Events at a Church — Arkansas, March 2020.”
Other events at the church during the time studied included worship services and a special children’s event over three days that involved a community meal, singing and the passing of “offerings” from children to adults. The pastor closed the church March 12 after others in his congregation began to feel ill two days after his initial symptoms developed, according to the study.
“This outbreak highlights the potential for widespread transmission of ... the virus that causes COVID-19, both at group gatherings during church events and within the broader community,” the study warned. “These findings underscore the opportunity for faith-based organizations to prevent COVID-19 by following local authorities’ guidance and the U.S. Government’s Guidelines.”
Arkansas hadn’t issued social distancing guidelines urging people to stay 6 feet apart until March 16, the report noted. But the pastor told researchers that church members sat apart during the Bible study he led.
Revised guidelines by the CDC set out various precautions to take at houses of worship planning to reopen, depending on the existing rates of community transmission of COVID-19. They include daily cleaning of churches, limiting the size of gatherings, suspending “singing, chanting, or reciting” during services, maintaining social distancing, providing hand sanitizer and encouraging the use of face masks.
Church services can be “super-spreader” events, serving as incubators for a wider-scale community infection. One church in South Korea is believed to have provided a setting for thousands of people to contract the virus over the course of a month.
Sources told Politico that Trump demanded that houses of worship reopen because of slipping poll numbers showing him losing ground to Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden. Two recent polls this month show support for the president eroding among white evangelicals and white Catholics, who had been crucial backers.
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